How old are the Old Latin gospels?

In the second edition of his Introduction and Appendix (1896), B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) suggested a novel criterion to assess so-called external evidence, namely, that the convergence of the Old Latin manuscript 1 (k) with the recently-discovered Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest (sys) could signal a text form of greater antiquity than the combined witness of Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus:

“The discovery of the Sinaitic MS of the Old Syriac raises the question whether the combination of the oldest types of the Syriac and Latin texts can outweigh the combination of the primary Greek texts. A careful examination of the passages in which syr.sin and k are arrayed against אB would point to the conclusion.”1

Christened a “methodological formula” by A. Vööbus and, rather dramatically, a “deathbed confession” by W. L. Petersen, Westcott’s “criterion” gained some acceptance, judging from the range of scholars who cited it.2 Yet we wonder whether — with F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) no longer in the picture as a voice of restraint — Westcott’s remarks reflect a degree of sensationalism following Agnes Lewis’s recent discovery of the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest in 1892.

No doubt a certain mystique surrounds the early versions. This aura of antiquity can be felt in their weighty titles, Vetus Latina and Vetus Syra. It is only enhanced by the abundance of free text forms they attest, thought to evoke the earliest stages of the New Testament text. Indeed, the Latin and Syriac versions are cited in support of a variety of seemingly ancient traditions, from the pericope adulterae to reports of a light or fire on the Jordan to a range of other traditions. Of course, since the attesting manuscripts tend to be much later than the period of interest, it is routinely noted that the dates of manuscripts matter less than the dates of the texts they contain, which of course may be several centuries older.

But how certain can we be that these particular texts as found in the Old Latin and Old Syriac gospels are very much older than their manuscripts? How reliable is the impression of age of their text forms? Can they somehow transport us behind the Greek tradition?

Examining the evidence, it is difficult to see how. Bobbiensis’s text likely dates to a generation or so before Cyprian, perhaps to the 230’s, as Tertullian betrays no knowledge of it.3 The Sinaitic Syriac text is difficult to date, but while perhaps influenced by earlier material seems itself not much earlier than the fourth century — not much earlier indeed than the Greek witnesses it is said possibly to preempt.4 And turning to the manuscripts themselves, we find in the case of the Old Latin that they date mainly to the fifth century:5

MS/Nr Name Contents Date Place
e 2 Palatinus Gospels V Italy
b 4 Veronensis Gospels Late V Italy
d 5 Bezae Cantabrigiensis Gospels,Acts c. 400 Berytus
ff2 8 Corbiensis Gospels V Italy
h 12 Claromontanus Matthew Late V Italy
n 16 Sangallense Gospels V Italy
i 17 Vindobonensis Luke,Mark Late V Italy
t 19 Bernense Mark Late V Italy (?)

Now at the end of the fourth century, the diversity of the Old Latin tradition is mentioned by more than one writer. Jerome writes in the 380’s:

“the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved to be faulty by the variations which all of them exhibit.”6

And again:

“We must confess that as we have it in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead [i.e. the Greek].”7

Writing about a decade later in 397, Augustine makes a similar observation, also conceding the priority of the Greek:

“As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek.”8

Augustine tries hard to cast these divergent translations in a positive light:

“the great number of the translators proves a very great assistance, if they are examined and discussed with a careful comparison of their texts.”9

But while Jerome was apparently content to make his own revisions (at least in the gospels), Augustine urges anyone with the requisite skills to correct texts:

“For those who are anxious to know, the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected.”10

So as the fourth century drew to a close, we find a context in which various correctors are at work on the Old Latin texts, attempting to correct them to a Greek model.

Yet while Augustine and Jerome could at least agree that Latin texts should be corrected to the Greek, their opinion was by no means the consensus view. Ambrosiaster argues the contrarian position that it is rather the Old Latin that preserves the most ancient available text form, because, as he argues, it agrees with the earliest Christian writers in the Latin tradition:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices, which the innocence of former times has safeguarded and now certifies to us without corruption. … For the text retained today in the Latin codices is found the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Cyprian.”11

The picture emerges then of a tradition still in flux at the turn of the fifth century, whose text had lost the confidence of its readers, who at the same time sought to affirm its value through their corrections. But with no common criteria for “correcting” the text, the instability of the tradition as a whole could only have been increasing at this time. Given that most of our best witnesses to this tradition date from after this period of instability, we are left wondering how we are to distinguish between ancient traditions and recent corrections. But if this is so, how can these traditions offer us any useful glimpse behind the Greek text?

SBL paper on Bezae’s “anti-feminist” readings now online

Yesterday I presented a paper on Bezae’s so-called “anti-feminist” readings in Acts at the 2016 SBL Annual Meeting in San Antonio, offering an alternative “anti-ascetic” interpretation of these readings on the basis of a proposed context in the late fourth century. The paper (with footnotes) is now available for viewing and download here. (For further background and an abstract, see my earlier announcement.)

Contextualizing Bezae’s “anti-feminist” readings near the time of the manuscript’s production avoids several pitfalls affecting typical attempts to place these readings in a second-century context or earlier:

  1. We may now draw a specific connection between the manuscript as artifact, produced with evident effort and expense, and pressing issues in the church at the time of production in circa 400.
  2. We can make historical connections that move beyond vague observation of a trend towards the institutionalization of patriarchal social conventions in the church.
  3. We avoid obvious anachronisms associated with the term “anti-feminist.”

A number of insightful questions were raised by colleagues, including a well-taken point about the inherent uncertainty regarding the status of apparently singular readings — whether in assessing scribal habits or Bezae’s uppermost layer. Naturally we are unable to attain certainty about what still-unknown sources might reveal about a given reading.1 I would suggest though that in dating Bezae’s uppermost textual layers singularity is not strictly required if the associated witnesses are related in other ways to a common provenance and time frame. So if Bezae does in fact attest a late fourth-century text, then its agreements with similarly late Old Latin manuscripts and capitula might reflect a common textual layer close to Bezae’s production.2

Another insightful question was raised concerning how to reconcile the late date I propose for these readings with the attestation of similar Bezan readings in the middle-Egyptian tradition, an important issue that I have discussed in a previous post.

Did Jerome suspend his criteria to include the pericope adulterae?

At the end of the fourth century, the Latin Vulgate is one of the earliest continuous manuscript traditions to attest the pericope adulterae (= PA) in John, if not the earliest. But given Jerome’s stated criteria, namely, to confine himself only to early Greek texts, and what we know about the Greek tradition, namely, that the earliest non-bilingual witness of the PA dates to the ninth century (K 017), we find ourselves virtually driven to the conclusion that, in his revision of John, Jerome severely neglected his own rules to include a pericope that — if he even did find it in his tradition — he nevertheless must have known failed his criteria!

Now Jerome claims to have seen many Greek manuscripts with the PA:

The story of the adulterous woman who was accused before the Lord is found in many Greek and many Latin manuscripts of the gospel of John. (Jerome, Against the Pelagians 2.17, my translation)

But that was in 415, thirty years after the fact! (Against the Pelagians, 2.17, see post) In that context, Jerome quite uncharacteristically cites the authority of Latin manuscripts, certainly an anomaly for one who normally rants against the Old Latin and its proponents, for example, as the famous “two-legged asses” (see post). (Of course, it would be somewhat unfair if Jerome included Vulgate copies in the tally after thirty years of copying! But can we be sure he does not have some of his own copies in mind?)

But in at least one other case where Jerome claims to have seen Greek manuscripts, he is convicted by his own testimony of a rather severe case of exaggeration, offering a conjecture in his Commentary on Matthew in 398, that just three years later, in his Homily 11 on Psalm 78, he now claims “is found in all the ancient copies” (see post).1

So what are Jerome’s criteria for his revision? They are plainly stated in his Preface to the Four Gospels:

I therefore promise in this short Preface the four Gospels only, which are to be taken in the following order, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, as they have been revised by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts. Only early ones have been used. (NPNF 2.6, 488, italics mine)

Jerome claims to have limited himself only to early Greek texts. Of course, in John, we happen to have some of these old gospel texts in P66 and P75, which as we are well aware, do not contain the PA.2 So even if Jerome had actually seen a Greek manuscript with the PA in the 380’s, it is still harder to believe that such a manuscript would have been among the early copies he claims to have used elsewhere.

So it seems unlikely that Jerome did not set aside his criteria to include the story. By his own principles, Jerome should have excluded the PA assuming he found it, but he chose not to.

We might inquire then as to what could be different about the PA that seems to have inspired Jerome to have included it against his critical judgment? As I have noted elsewhere, there are remarkable parallels between the PA and Jerome’s own story (see post; and more recently, here and here).

But how can we be sure Jerome’s criteria would have excluded the PA?

Fortunately, there is a similar case just three chapters earlier in John, in the tradition of the angel stirring the water in John 5:4. Here the witness groups in support of the apparent interpolation are arrayed as follows:

  • For: 2 3 4 6 8 14 15 22
  • Against: 5 10 11 13
  • Earliest extant Greek MS: A (V)
  • Vulgate: Against

The alignment is remarkably similar in support of the PA:

  • For: 2 5 6 8 14 15 22
  • Against: 3 10 11 13
  • Earliest extant Greek MS: D (bilingual, 400), K (non-bilingual, IX)
  • Vulgate: For

In neither case are there extant Greek MSS that precede the Vulgate, so in either case we might question whether Jerome had Greek support.

We should note however that the tradition of the angel has better support in the Old Latin tradition, including the support of our only fourth-century Old Latin witness, Vercellensis (a), but the tradition is nevertheless excluded by Jerome. Since Jerome’s opinion of the Old Latin was not favorable, we can assume he found no early Greek testimony. The Letter to Marcella should suffice to capture Jerome’s sentiments on the Old Latin:

the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved to be faulty by the variations which all of them exhibit, and my object has been to restore them to the form of the Greek original, from which my detractors do not deny that they have been translated. If they dislike water drawn from the clear spring, let them drink of the muddy streamlet. (Epist. 27.1 “To Marcella”; NPNF 2.6, 44)

So we should be surprised indeed if Jerome allowed a tradition into his revision solely on Latin support. We should rather expect him summarily to exclude such traditions.

Yet three chapters later in Jerome’s revision we find the PA, which has significantly less support in the Latin tradition, with no extent non-bilingual Greek support for four centuries. So Jerome’s motives for including the PA seem ulterior to the textual support.

But let us suppose for argument’s sake that Jerome did find the PA in the Old Latin tradition in 384. Here we have a case analogous to John 5:4, where the distribution of witnesses is similar though decidedly weaker. So if Jerome had found the PA in John in just the Old Latin tradition but not the Greek, we should expect him summarily to have excluded it, but he apparently does not. Jerome evidently valued the story highly enough that he was willing to make an exception for it.

But if Jerome did not find the PA in his text or if he found it but it did not meet his criteria, what then might have drawn him to this remarkable story? What here induced Jerome to prefer the muddy streamlet over the clear spring? Was it the story of forgiveness? Admiration for his teacher Didymus? Identification with the accused? Anger at the hypocrites? Or perhaps sympathy for a beloved friend similarly accused? It seems we shall never know.

A working theory of Bezae’s text

The aim of this post is to outline a working theory of Bezae’s text in the gospels and Acts, starting with five well-known features of Bezae’s text:1

  1. Isolation from the Greek mainstream
  2. Old Latin parallels
  3. Parallels with ancient writers
  4. East-West exchange of readings
  5. Major variation in Acts

Isolation from the Greek mainstream

Bezae’s Greek text is composed of three primary layers assembled at the end of the fourth century (c. 385), each layer representing a distinct source of mixture:2

  1. A Greek base, perhaps connected to the library at Caesarea
  2. A selective retroversion of Latin readings from various Old Latin source traditions
  3. An upper “scribal” layer (not actually by Bezae’s scribe)3

Bezae’s mixture of layers obscures its individual component traditions and hides its mainstream relationships: A significant side effect of layering is that Bezae’s text as a whole appears isolated from the mainstream tradition.4 But if we partition Bezae’s readings into natural layers, these individual layers can be related to the mainstream tradition.5 So when Old Latin and “singular” readings are set aside, Bezae has a very mainstream Greek text, with parallels to Family 1, Origen, and other texts associated with Caesarea.

Final layer combination dating to c. 385: Bezae’s three immediate layers were brought together at the end of the fourth century (c. 385) based on the following considerations:

  1. Bezae’s text must post-date the late, so-called “European” or “northern Italian” form of the Old Latin tradition (350–380) to which it is partially assimilated.6 Bezae’s close relationship with this late form of the Old Latin is most apparent in Mark.7
  2. Bezae’s upper layer exhibits a well-documented interest in enhancing Peter’s role in Acts.8 This same interest is found in Bezae’s Corrector G (see post), suggesting that Bezae’s upper layer was produced at the same time as the manuscript and exemplar, that is, close to its initial correction.9
  3. Documented tendencies detected in Bezae’s upper “scribal” layer, especially the augmentation of Peter, fit a late fourth-century context (see post).
    1. Pro-Petrine tendencies – driven by the promotion of Constantinople to second rank among apostolic sees at the Council of Constantinople (381) (see post).
    2. Anti-ascetic tendencies – a response to Jerome (380’s) or possibly Jovinian (390s)
    3. Anti-Judaic tendencies – motivated by church orders segregating Christians and Jews, reflecting marginalization of Jews in imperial code (see post)
    4. Other tendencies – all documented tendencies fit a context of c. 385
  4. The assumption that the Vulgate revision of the gospels provided some impetus for Bezae’s project as a means to legitimate the Old Latin version (384-385) (see post)
  5. Rome’s mediation in the Antiochian schism as a background for shared readings in the Latin and Syriac traditions as well as between Bezae and other “Western”-influenced Greek MSS (378-397).10

Bezae’s Greek base with Caesarean connections: Bezae’s Greek base had an independent history before being appropriated by Bezae’s producers in the final two decades of the fourth century.11 Several studies suggest that Bezae’s Greek base has connections with Caesarea in Palestine as a possible provenance.12

Bezae’s Latin column a composite of Old Latin texts: Bezae’s Latin column reflects a hybridization of Latin texts, “African” and “European,” according to the traditional nomenclature, which accounts for its independence within the Latin tradition.13

Old Latin parallels

Latin assimilation a major process in Bezan Greek text: Bezae’s distinctive parallels with the Old Latin version result from assimilation to the Latin version through a process of selective retroversion (on assimilation theories, see my survey of Bezan theories).14

Bezae’s Greek text a partial retroversion of various Latin versions: Bezae’s Greek column reflects a process of selective assimilation to one or more strands of the Old Latin version. The Greek column may not be derived directly from the Latin column (at least as written), though it shares the same readings.15 A proposed process is as follows:

  1. Multiple Latin versions were combined to create an archetypical Latin column
  2. Latin column archetype translated into Greek and used to correct a Greek base text
  3. Resulting Greek and Latin columns mutually corrected to agree, obscuring the dependence of the Greek column on the archetypical Latin column.

Parallels with ancient writers

Ancient parallels in Bezae are direct or indirect echoes of second- or third-century writers: Bezae’s parallels with ancient writers reached its text through one of two routes:

  1. Incorporation of parallels already in the Old Latin version indirectly through assimilation to this version (see post).
  2. Deliberate archaizing of Bezae’s text form to agree with authoritative ancient writers, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Victorinus, and Irenaeus.16

The implication is that no second-century writer had access to a so-called “Western” or pre-“Western” text. Readings shared by Bezae with ancient writers and the Old Latin tradition were likely assimilated into Bezae’s text through the Old Latin tradition. Particularly vivid parallels with ancient writers and parallels not shared with the Old Latin tradition may have resulted from deliberate archaizing of the fourth-century text.17

East-West exchange of readings

Western mediation in the Antiochian schism (378-397) a plausible background for Bezae’s text: The exchange of readings responsible for Bezae’s Latin and Syriac parallels and possibly also its parallels with Codex Sinaiticus (א) in John 1–8 and with P127 in Acts occurred towards the end of the fourth century in the aftermath of the Arian controversy, when the East faced a struggle to rebuild its institutions (on East-West exchange, see post). The Antiochian Schism (362-397) provides a plausible backdrop for the introduction of Old Latin readings from West to East by representatives of Rome during the period of mediation (378-397), though important work may have occurred in Caesarea in Palestine.18 Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) explicitly sought Rome’s involvement in mediating the Antiochian schism between rival orthodox parties (Epistles 70, 92). In the subsequent period, numerous delegations were sent in both directions between Rome and Antioch, providing a promising setting for the exchange of texts.19

Major variation in Acts

Bezae’s Acts text establishes an apostolic precedent for recognition of Petrine primacy: Significant rewriting in canonical Acts is a side effect of this book’s importance for establishing apostolic precedent in general and especially recognition of Petrine primacy, in late fourth-century debates. The issue of Petrine primacy was particularly relevant in the case of Rome’s intervention in the politics of an ancient see, such as Antioch, and its rivalry with Constantinople after the Council of 381.

Did Ambrose use an Old Latin or Vulgate text in the pericope adulterae?

This post responds to the helpful comments I have received concerning my suggestion that Jerome might be the interpolator of the pericope adulterae (= PA) in John. Of course, any suggestion of this kind must ultimately be evaluated in light of the textual evidence.

Ambrose’s witness to the PA turns out to be highly significant because it dates to the same decade that Jerome released the Vulgate gospels, the first indirect witness to the PA in John. The question we must ask is whether Ambrose depended on a newly-minted Vulgate text or an existing Old Latin text. If Ambrose relied on a new Vulgate text, it is evident either that he cited rather freely or relied on a different edition — a possibility suggested by Jerome’s own citations of the PA, which differ from the standard Vulgate form. On the other hand, if Ambrose relied on an Old Latin text, it is not like any Old Latin text we have, though it shares some distinctive readings with the Old Latin witnesses.

The following table shows Ambrose’s agreements with the Old Latin and Vulgate texts in the pericope adulterae. Text shared with the Vulgate is green (104 units), text shared with at least one Old Latin witness is yellow (34 units), and text unique to Ambrose is red (71 units).1

MS 2 MS 5 MS 8 MS 14 Vulgate Jerome, Pelagius Ambrose, Epist 68 Ambrose, Epist 50 Ambrose, Misc 1 Ambrose, Misc 2
John 8:4
et offerentes ergo eam (+ et W, + publice M)
dixerunt dicunt dixerunt dixerunt dixerunt dixerunt
ad
illi illi ihm ei ei
temptantes
eum
sacerdotes
ut
haberent
accusare
eum
magister magister magister [m]agister magister
haec haec haec haec haec hanc
mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier mulierem
modo modo
depraehensa conpraehensa deprehensa depraehensa deprehensa inuenimus
est est est est est
sponte palam publice
in in [in] in
moecata adulterio moecatione adulterio adulterio moechantem
John 8:5
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68
in in in
lege moyses intellege lege lege
autem autem autem autem autem scriptum est enim (autem r)
nobis in in
lege lege
moyses moyses Moses Moysi (Moysis m)
mandauit praecepit precepit mandauit mandavit
nobis [n]obis nobis
moyses
ut
huiusmodi tales qui huiusmodi huiusmodi omnem moecham
in
alturio
deprehenditur
lapidare lapidare lapidetur lapidare lapidare lapidari
tu tu tu tu tu tu
ergo autem nunc autem autem ergo uero
quid quid quid quid quid quid (qui E*)
dicis dicis dicis di[ci]s dicis dicis
de de
ea ea
John 8:6
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM Iob AM De spiritu
hoc haec hoc haec quae hoc hoc
enim autem autem cum igitur
dicebant dicebant dicebant dicebant dicerent
temptantes temptantes temptantes temptantes
illum eum eum eum
ut ut ut ut
haberent haberent [pos]sent possent
quomodo causam
eum eum
unde cum Iudaei
accusarent adcusandi accussare accusare accusarent
eum eum adulteram
praeuidens digito mystice etiam
dominus dominus dominus
ihs ihs ihs ihs Iesus at Iesus Iesus Iesus Iesus Iesus
autem autem autem autem autem
inclinato inclinatus inclinato inclinans inclinans inclinans inclinato inclinato inclinato
[… se
capite capite d]eorsum deorsum capite capite capite
digito digito digito digito digito digito digito digito
supra suo suo
terram
scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat
in in in in in in in in in
terram terram terra terra terra terra (terram Pl) terra terra terra
cum a Iudaeis adultera esset oblata
John 8:7
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM David
et
cum cum cum cu[m cum cum
ergo autem autem aute]m autem
perseuerarent inmanerent interrogarent perseuerarent perseverarent exspectarent
interrogantes interrogantes expectantes interrogantes interrogantes ut audirent
eum eum eum eum eum
quid […]
diceret
et
adlebauit erexit erexit erexit erigens
capud caput
se se se se
et et et et et
dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit iterum erigit quasi dicturus sententiam et ait
illis illis eis eis eis
si
quis quis quisque qui qui qui qui qui qui
uestrum est uestrum
sine sine sine sine sine sine sine sine sine
peccato peccato delicto peccato peccato peccato peccato peccato peccato
est est es[t est est est est est, inquit,
ipse uestrum …] vestrum uestrum (+ uestrum F P1 al., ~ est sine peccato M)
prior prior prior primus primus prior prior prior
super super in in
illam eam eam [… illam
iniciat mittat mittat
super eam
lapidem lapidem lapidem lap]ide[m] lapidem lapidem lapidet lapidet lapidet
iactet mit[tat] mittat eam eam (lapidem in illam mittat F) eam
John 8:8
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50
et et et […] et et
iterum iterum iterum iterum iterum
se
inclinato inclinatus inclinas inclinans inclinato
capite se capite
de
digito digito
suo
supra
terram
hoc autem dixit et
scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat
in in in in in
terra terram terra terra (terram Pa*) terra
John 8:9
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50
illi unusquisque illi
autem autem igitur
cum iudaeorum cum
audissent audissent audientes audientes audientes (+ autem P, audiens M*)
autem autem
hoc uerbum
exierunt foras
unus paulatim […] unus unus (unum M) illi
post secedebant post post post
unum singuli unum unum unum
exiebant exiebant exiebant exiebant exire coeperunt
singuli
incipientes incipientes adcipientes incipientes incipientes incipientes incipientes (insipientes M)
a a a a a a
senioribus presbyteris senioribus […]bus senioribus senioribus senioribus
et sedebant cogitantes de se uel quod ipsi plura haberent crimina qui diu uixerant uel qui priores (priorem B* F L P) uim intellexerunt sententiae quasi prudentiores
uti
omnes omnes
exire recesserunt recedentibus ergo illis
et et et et et et
solusque
relictus remansit relictus remansit remansit remansit remansit remansit
est est
ihs ihs
solus solus solus solus solus solus solus
ihs Iesus Iesus
et et et et et cum et
ecce
mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier
illa
in in in in in in
medio medio medio me[dio] medio medio
cum cui
esset erat stans stans locutus est Iesus stans
John 8:10
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50
cum cumque et
adleuasset erigens erexisset erigens erigens eleuans eleuans
autem autem autem autem autem
capud se se se se caput caput
ihs ihs ihs ihs Iesus Iesus
dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit
ad ad
ei eam ei ei
mulier mulieri mulier mulier mulier mulieri (mulier B) mulierem
ait
ubi ubi ubi […] ubi ubi ubi ubi
sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt
qui qui qui qui
te te te te
perduxerunt accussabant accusabant accusabant
nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo
te te te te te te te te
condemnauit lapidauit condem[na]uit condemnavit condemnauit lapidauit (condemnauit r) lapidauit (condemnauit HSr)
John 8:11
2 5 8 14 vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM Ep 64 AM David
iudicauit
dixit
et et et et
ad
illa illa illa illa illa
quae quae quae
respondens
dixit dixit dixit dixit ait respondit respondit
illi
nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nullus nemo nemo
dne dme dne dne Domine domine domine
ad
ille
dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit responditque et ait dicit ait
autem autem autem autem
ei ei ad illam ei
ihs ihs i[hs] Iesus Iesus Iesus Iesus
ad illam
nec nec nec nec nec neque nec nec
ego ego ego ego ego ego ego ego
te te te te te te te te (x F)
iudico condemno damnabo condemnabo condemnabo condemno damnabo (condemnabo EFHMOSWd) damnabo (damno r, condemnabo cett.)
i uade uade uade vade uade uade uade uade uade
hinc
et et et et et et et et
ex ex ex post
amplius hoc hoc ho[c] amplius amodo amodo amodo amodo haec
uide uide (x B, ~ uide amodo m) uide uide
iam iam iam iam
noli noli noli noli noli noli ne (nec F) ne ne ne
peccare peccare peccare peccare peccare peccare pecces pecces pecces pecces
2 5 8 14 vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM Ep 64 AM David

The pericope adulterae and Jerome’s use of fictional narrative

In several recent posts, I have explored the possibility that Jerome himself was the author and interpolator of the pericope adulterae (= PA) in the form and location in which it appears in his Vulgate revision of John. I have based this suggestion largely on five observations:

  1. The sudden interest in the final form of the PA and knowledge of its place in John at the time the Vulgate gospels were introduced (c. 385), especially among Latin writers who were likely to have been acquainted with Jerome and his revision.
  2. The questionable reliability of Jerome’s testimony to the PA thirty years later in Against Pelagians (415), when he appeals to the existence of Greek and Latin copies which by this time had thirty years to propagate.
  3. Uncertainty as to the precise date the Vulgate gospels were completed, due to our nearly complete dependence for this date on a dubious letter exchange between Jerome and Damasus.
  4. A series of striking parallels between the story related in the PA and Jerome’s circumstances in 385 concerning his bitter dismissal from Rome under charges of sexual misconduct and his attachment to a woman (Paula) who was by implication caught in the act of adultery by those whom he called a hypocritical “senate of Pharisees.”
  5. The uncanny overlap between sources detected in the PA and Jerome’s literary activities in the mid-380’s. In particular, we might consider:
    1. In producing his own Commentary on Ecclesiastes (388), it is likely Jerome consulted the Commentary on Ecclesiastes of his esteemed mentor Didymus, which attests a shorter version of the PA, featuring Jesus and a condemned woman. So Jerome was likely in contact with Didymus’ version of the story just as he was completing the Vulgate.
    2. Jerome’s use of Jeremiah’s imprecations against his own accusers in the Preface to his translation of Didymus’ Treatise on the Holy Spirit, where he imagines to a boiling pot (Jeremiah 1:13) tilting over his persecutors, while in the PA, Jesus writes the accusers of the woman in the dust (Jeremiah 17:13).

Of course, one obvious problem with any suggestion that Jerome may have authored the PA is that it seems to accuse him of passing off a fictional narrative as a genuine tradition about Jesus. The problem is little diminished if we suggest that Jerome merely interpolated an existing tradition with certain details from his own experience.

But as Donatien De Bruyne pointed out long ago, Jerome’s use of fictional narrative settings is not uncommon in his letters.1 Nor does Jerome’s use of fiction necessarily reflect an intent to deceive, given that the letters seem to have been prepared expressly for publication.2

If De Bruyne’s understanding is accurate, Jerome used fictional narrative settings for a variety of ends, for example, moral instruction (Epistles 117 and 147) or as a background for exegetical inquiry (Epistles 106, 120, 121). Consider:

  • In Contra Vigilantium 3, Jerome acknowledges that a story he recounted in his Epistle 117 is fictitious:3

“he [Vigilantius] may choose once more to misrepresent me, and say that I have trumped up a case for the sake of showing off my rhetorical and declamatory powers in combating it, like the letter which I wrote to Gaul, relating to a mother and daughter who were at variance.” (NPNF 2.6, 418)

The letter in question contains Jerome’s supposed advice to a monk from Gaul, whose mother and sister had welcomed monks to live in their respective homes. Of course, Jerome’s advice is for the women to dismiss the monks and live together lest they provoke temptation and scandal.

  • D. de Bruyne points out that the setting of Jerome’s Epistle 106 to Sunnias and Fretela is likely fictitious. The letter alleges that two inquisitive sojourners from Getica have arrived in Bethlehem desiring a full account of the differences between Jerome’s “Roman” psalter of 383 and the LXX psalter, an inquiry that seems unlikely to have driven two travelers across the Empire, while (perhaps too conveniently) the identity of travelers from a remote provenance is not easily verified! At the same time, the rather obscure inquiry fits Jerome’s interests particularly well.
  • de Bruyne points to the setting of Epistle 120 as likely fictitious. In this letter, a certain woman, Hedibia, from Gaul with a burning interest in the study of Scripture approaches Jerome with twelve questions concerning “contradictions” in the New Testament. Again, we might note the somewhat contrived setup as well as the suspicious alignment of “Hedibia’s” interests with Jerome’s.
  • de Bruyne suggests that the setting of Epistle 121 is likely fictitious. In this letter, another woman from Gaul, a certain Algasia, approaches Jerome for answers to her eleven most pressing New Testament questions.
  • de Bruyne also suggests as fictitious Jerome’s lurid tale in Epistle 147, concerning a certain wayward monk, Sabinianus, who commits adultery at Rome and attempts to seduce of a nun in Bethlehem.

These contrived narrative settings fall into two categories. On the one hand is Jerome’s self-assured and somewhat self-promoting topos of the “celebrity” scholar to whom petitioners flock from remote corners of the empire to test his exegetical insight (Epistles 106, 120, 121). On the other though is a more troubled preoccupation with sexual guilt, temptation, and hypocrisy, closer to the themes encountered in the PA. Here we find what seems a losing struggle to escape sexual immorality involving monks, widows, virgins, and nuns. In both categories, a choice of more remote settings in Gaul and the distant Latin West makes it difficult to challenge the veracity of the narrative.

While these purely fictitious settings seem harmless enough, in other cases Jerome’s apparent reference to real persons and events seems to cross the line in an apparent intent to mislead. According to Nautin’s suggestion, this is notably the case for Epistle 35, which appears not to have been composed by Pope Damasus to Jerome (as claimed), but rather by Jerome himself to secure support for his projects, as Nautin explains:

when examined closely, these documents [Epistles 35 and 36] raise some troubling questions that we must decide one day to confront directly. Not that we can doubt that the three letters of Jerome are by him, but many indications suggest that he is also the author of three letters attributed to Damasus and that he composed this correspondence after the death of the pope at a time when it was useful to take advantage of his relationship with the deceased pontiff.4

Following Jerome’s established topos of the inquisitive petitioner, Epistle 35 poses five exegetical questions lifted straight out of Ambrosiaster’s Questions on the Old Testament. As Nautin argues, Jerome’s purpose in using a fictional setting is threefold:

  1. To demonstrate his superiority as a biblical scholar over Ambrosiaster5
  2. To display his close relationship with the pope and suggest the pope’s approval of his scholarly projects6
  3. To show that he had long contemplated a Latin translation of Didymus’ work on the Holy Spirit lest the timing of his own translation be misunderstood as a direct attack on Ambrose, as it was apparently intended7

Nautin suggests that the rest of Damasus’ putative private correspondence with Jerome is similarly fictitious, including Epistle 19, in which the pontiff allegedly inquires about the meaning of the word “Hosanna,” as though he were Jerome’s obedient pupil. Of course, the point is to allow Jerome to display his allegedly copious knowledge of Hebrew. In a similar vein, Epistle 21 responds to Damasus’ alleged request for a minute explanation of the parable of the prodigal son.

So what are we to make of the fictional element in Jerome’s epistles? Certainly, if we are to cite Jerome’s testimony as textual evidence, we must be fully aware that he is not always trustworthy. Moreover, we cannot apologize for Jerome’s lack of reliability as a kind of forgetfulness or a fondness for exaggeration. The consequence of being too accepting is to attribute to the early gospel what was likely never there.

The ultimate question though is how far Jerome would be willing to exploit this device of narrative fiction beyond the epistolary genre. Would he have introduced a fictional narrative into a gospel? Might he have justified this on the basis of Didymus’ use of a similar story? As textual scholars we cannot afford to be too generous towards Jerome when it comes to his inclusion of the PA in the Vulgate when we encounter so much willingness to employ fiction elsewhere.

It is strange indeed that the final form of the PA, if it is truly an ancient tradition, cannot be traced before the decade of the first indirect tradition in which it is attested. It is odd that this sensational story remained so well hidden before Jerome’s Vulgate burst on the scene. In fact, the position of the PA in John strikes us as odd until we read it through the lens of Jerome’s bitter experience.

Are Jerome’s Roman accusers the Pharisees of the pericope adulterae?

In my previous post, I pointed to Jerome’s Vulgate as a possible avenue by which an expanded version of Didymus’ account of Jesus and the condemned woman — from a certain gospel — reached John 7:53 in its final full form as the pericope adulterae (= PA). Some appealing features of this suggestion are:

  • Jerome’s recent expulsion from Rome by an assembly of clerics he terms a “senate of Pharisees” under charges of sexual impropriety predisposed him towards texts concerning hypocritical judges and accusations of sexual sin
  • Jerome’s high opinion of his mentor Didymus is favorable to his acquaintance with material found in Didymus’ writings, such as the story of Jesus and the condemned woman, from which the full form of the PA may have developed
  • Given his acquaintance with Didymus’ work, it is not improbable that Jerome consulted Didymus’ Commentary on Ecclesiastes, which contains the story of Jesus and the condemned woman, in preparing his own Commentary on Ecclesiastes (388), a work nearly contemporaneous with his eviction from Rome
  • Given that Jerome’s revision of the gospels was already in progress at the time accusations against him surfaced and that it was apparently produced with little or no oversight, Jerome was afforded an ideal opportunity to introduce new material as he saw fit
  • The possibility that Jerome fabricated his correspondence with Damasus should make us wary of accepting his report concerning the circumstances of the Vulgate’s production at face value, including his report of presenting the work to Damasus before the latter’s death in 384
  • The PA’s affinity with the Latin tradition is well-explained if it arose in the Latin rather than the Greek tradition

While the circumstantial parallels are certainly remarkable, we still require an impetus capable of explaining the introduction of new material into a canonical gospel. Such an impetus is readily supplied by Jerome’s festering hostility towards those whom he believed had plotted his downfall at Rome, for whom he may well have intended the PA as a “secret” indictment.

Jerome’s Bitterness against his Accusers

Jerome’s bitterness towards his Roman accusers is best exemplified in a series of vicious attacks on Ambrose, whom Jerome apparently held responsible for his undoing, a case that is examined by S. M. Oberhelman in his article, “Jerome’s Earliest Attack on Ambrose: On Ephesians, Prologue (ML 26:469D-70A).” 1 Oberhelman recounts in vivid detail how, following his expulsion from Rome, Jerome’s stance towards Ambrose reversed practically overnight from obsequious flattery to malicious character assault:

“Jerome initiated and conducted for almost thirty years a malicious assault on Ambrose’s character, as well as his literary and exegetical abilities.”2

As Oberhelman points out, the suddenness of Jerome’s reversal is especially striking:

“until the end of 384, Jerome praised Ambrose as a gifted writer and a pillar of orthodoxy. But beginning in 388 Jerome cast malicious aspersions on Ambrose’s character, literary accomplishments, theological training, and critical tools in scriptural exegesis; the attacks do not cease with Ambrose’s death but continue until the end of Jerome’s life. Jerome blamed Ambrose for a hand in his expulsion from Rome. This then accounts for the deep bitterness that emerges immediately after his return to the east in late 385 or the summer of 386.”3

The viciousness with which Jerome, in Oberhelman’s words, “savagely pilloried Ambrose” was not lost on the contemporary writer Rufinus, Jerome’s former associate and friend, who notes in his own defense against similar attacks:

“another man whom he [Jerome] tears to pieces is Ambrose that Bishop of sacred memory. In what manner, and with what disparagement he attacks him, I will show” (Apology against Jerome 2.22; NPNF 2.3, 469).4

“now I have undertaken to prove how violently he attacks a man who is worthy of all admiration, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who was not to that church alone but to all the churches like a column or an impregnable fortress. I will therefore set forth a Preface of his by which you may see in what foul and unworthy terms he assails even a man of such eminence, and also how he praises Didymus to the sky.” (Against Jerome 2.23; NPNF 2.3, 470)

Rufinus claims to know more than he wants to divulge concerning the allegedly unsavory details of Jerome’s exodus from Rome, as he relates:

“I could unfold a tale as to the manner of your departure from Rome; as to the opinions expressed about you at the time, and written about you afterwards, as to your oath, the place where you embarked, the pious manner in which you avoided committing perjury; all this I could enlarge upon, but I have determined to keep back more than I relate.” (Apology of Jerome against Rufinus 3.21; NPNF 2.3, 530)5

Elsewhere Rufinus mentions “secret” unfavorable information he might disclose about Jerome:

“he [Jerome] knows that I possess a letter of his in which, while he discharges others, he makes his strictures fall upon Ambrose. But, since that letter contains certain more secret matters, I do not wish to see it published before the right time.” (Against Jerome 2.23; NPNF 2.3, 471)

But the context of Rufinus’ remarks makes it absolutely clear that he connects Jerome’s assault on Ambrose to events surrounding his unceremonious dismissal from Rome.

Is Ambrose One of Jerome’s Pharisees?

Oberhelman attaches particular significance to Jerome’s reference to the assembly of the Roman clergy who forced him out of Rome as a “senate of Pharisees:”6 In his translation of Didymus’ Treatise on the Holy Spirit, itself intended to expose Ambrose’s alleged plagiarism of his mentor, Jerome writes:

“While I was an inhabitant of Babylon [i.e. Rome], a settler in the land of the purple harlot, and lived under the law of the Quirites, I attempted to write some poor stuff about the Holy Spirit and dedicated the work to the Pontiff of that city [i.e. Damasus]. When on a sudden that pot which Jeremiah saw after the almond rod began to seethe from the face of the North [in judgment]; and the whole senate of the Pharisees raised a clamour and no mere imaginary scribe but the whole faction of the ignorant as if I had declared war against them, laid their heads together against me.”(Jerome, Preface to Treatise of Didymus on the Holy Spirit, cited by Rufinus, Against Jerome 2.24, NPNF 2.3, 470)

It is significant that in his attack on this so-called “senate of Pharisees,” Jerome invokes Jeremiah’s judgment oracles against his accusers, much as Jesus’ writing on the ground invokes Jeremiah’s judgment on the Pharisees in the PA. At the same time, Jerome invokes the saintliness of Didymus, who provided him with material for this “prophetic” indictment against the hypocritical Pharisees:

“But Didymus, my own Didymus, who has the eyes of the bride in the Song of Songs, those eyes which Jesus bade us lift up upon the whitening fields, looks afar into the depths, and has once more given us cause to call him, as is our wont, the Seer Prophet.” (Jerome cited by Rufinus, Against Jerome 2.24, NPNF 2.3, 470)

Jerome is of course making an ironic comparison of the blind Didymus to “the Seer Prophet” Jeremiah, implying that Didymus’ words will reveal judgment against his false accusers, especially the “plagiarizer” Ambrose, just as the innocent Jeremiah’s prophecy announced divine judgment on the Kingdom of Judah. But if Didymus’ words on the Holy Spirit convey judgment on Jerome’s “senate of Pharisees,” might his account of the condemned woman convey similar, more pointed judgment on these “false” accusers?

Jerome against Hypocritical Bishops

In fact, as Oberhelman shows, Jerome’s writings at Bethlehem following his ignominious departure from Rome overflow with vitriol against bishops, who sound a lot like caricatures of Ambrose, who it is claimed:

“have achieved their positions, not by merit, but by influence and connections.”7

Of course, Ambrose is known for having been promoted from catechumen to bishop on the basis of his secular prominence as governor of Aemilia-Liguria. But according to Jerome, these hypocrites resort (according to Oberhelman’s paraphrase) to:

“obsequiousness, bribery, and methods so vile (so Jerome claims) that he must keep silent … [o]nce these bishops assume office, they consider their position as one of absolute authority rather than as a dispensation from God” 8

Oberhelman continues:

“Jerome does not stop here with theoretical observations, but proceeds to paint a series of very vivid, highly rhetorical scenes of bishops inebriated in taverns, hurling wine cups, ‘vomiting in order to drink and drinking in order to vomit,’ and indulging in the most disgusting sexual and carnal lusts …. [t]hese same bishops, exulting as they do in their power, will not refrain from excommunicating laypeople who seem to be enjoying the ‘good life’.”9

Oberhelman concludes:

“Such passages have particular relevance when we reflect on Jerome’s expulsion of a year earlier from Rome by a council of Roman clerics who had been abetted by the powerful bishops of Rome and Milan. … Jerome inserts in the most irrelevant places tirades against the highest ranking members of the clergy, who, as Jerome is careful to point out, are ignorant of theology and the scriptures, but who prefer to pander to fawning congregations and audiences by indulging in rhetoric and oratory-the very charges that the prologue to On Ephesians lays at Ambrose’s feet.”10

So Jerome’s bitter attack on Ambrose offers us a glimpse of the lengths to which he would go to pursue his accusers. But might Jerome’s fondness for Didymus “the prophet” have emboldened him to insert a free gospel tradition cited by Didymus in a canonical text to impugn his accusers?

Oberhelman is led to the following chilling appraisal of Jerome:

“[his commentaries on Paul] illustrate the intensity of Jerome’s ill-will and hatred toward the bishops of the church at the very time when he formulated his attacks on Ambrose between 386/7 and 392. Jerome could never forget the episode in Rome or those whom he held accountable for his disgraceful departure. Jerome’s malice toward Ambrose and the “senate of Pharisees” surfaces first in the Pauline commentaries and does not cease until death conquered what his Christian love and faith were not able to overcome.”11

While Oberhelman makes little effort to disguise his unfavorable view of Jerome, his withering critique certainly has some basis. Nor is Oberhelman the first scholar to have formed an essentially negative assessment of Jerome’s character. But if Jerome were so ready to avenge himself on his adversaries that any separation between truth and fantasy became distorted in his eyes, it is time that text critics pay attention, and all the more urgently if we wish to rely on Jerome’s testimony for our decisions on the text.