Jerome and the Pericope adulterae

Jerome’s remarks on the story of the adulterous woman in Adversus Pelagianos (415) are sometimes taken as a virtual textual commentary on his Old Latin revision completed more than three decades earlier (384):

In Euangelio secundum Iohannem in multis et Graecis et Latinis codicibus inuenitur de adultera muliere, quae accusata est apud Dominum. (Jerome, Adversus Pelagianos 2.17)

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)

From these remarks, it is sometimes assumed that at the time he revised the text of John in the early 380’s, Jerome already had at his disposal many Greek and many Latin manuscripts both with and without the pericope adulterae (= PA). But this assumption overlooks a gap of over thirty years between Jerome’s dispute with the Pelagians in 415 and his Vulgate revision of the gospels in 384. In short, it is questionable that Jerome’s remarks in Adversus Pelagianos can be cited (as they often are) as evidence that the PA was represented in many Greek and many Latin copies of John before its appearance in the Vulgate.

But even in 415, it is not easy to rule out a degree of exaggeration on Jerome’s part. Certainly, given the polemical context, Jerome has every reason to present the Greek evidence in the most favorable light. After all, his argument from the Greek meaning of αναμαρτητος (v. 7) as “without sin” rests somewhat precariously (it would seem) on the existence of Greek copies. But if Greek copies had been easy to find, why mention their number or (for that matter) bring up the problem at all? It seems that by calling in the Latin evidence, Jerome anticipates an  objection concerning the scarcity of Greek copies, which suggests that in 415 there were still very few Greek copies of John with the PA, but apparently plenty of Latin copies.

Stepping back a bit, there is a disconcerting aspect to Jerome’s appeal to the Latin tradition given his own contribution to the dissemination of the PA in Latin. By all appearances, the Vulgate contributed immensely to the story’s popularity. We must wonder at the sudden explosion of interest in the PA in the Latin tradition after its first appearance in the Vulgate. (Consider, for example, Ambrose’s reference in Epistle 68 from 385-387, Rufinus’ apparent reinterpretation of Papias through the PA from 401-402, and Augustine’s two references from after 399. The other allusions in Latin seem to follow this pattern as well.)

On the other hand, it is odd that besides Jerome’s citation of a single Greek word, the only Greek evidence occurs in a manuscript that also contains a Latin column (Codex Bezae), while additional allusions to the PA continue in Latin writers for several centuries before the first surviving reference in a Greek writer. Even in the fifth century then, we still struggle to find the pericope standing as an independent Greek tradition at its canonical position in the Vulgate, leading us to wonder what Greek evidence Jerome might have found in the early 380’s outside of extra-biblical traditions. Why does Jerome’s mentor Didymus still know a very different form of PA (for all its impressive similarity)? Why is he still unwilling or unable to identify which gospel it came from?

Of course, this may all be a coincidence. But it leaves open a number of unanswered questions concerning Jerome’s involvement in establishing the PA in its “canonical” position between John 7:52 and 8:12.