How reliable is Jerome’s testimony for the pericope adulterae?

In an earlier post I pointed to some striking parallels between the Vulgate edition of the pericope adulterae (= PA) and the circumstances of Jerome’s expulsion from Rome, apparently under accusations of sexual impropriety. Considering various anomalies in Jerome’s testimony concerning the PA, I raised the question as to whether Jerome himself may have contributed to its final form.

I had already drafted the above post when last Saturday I attended Amy M. Donaldson’s paper, “‘What Was Spoken through the Prophet Asaph’ (Matt. 13:35): Textual Evidence from Jerome, or Conjectural Emendation by Origen?”, at the Pacific Northwest Regional SBL meeting on the variant “through Asaph” (ασαφ) in Matthew 13:35. [1] Since the reading lacks any surviving continuous manuscript support, the external evidence rests entirely on Jerome’s remarks. [2]

Fortunately, since Jerome comments on the reading on two separate occasions, we are able to compare his respective accounts and assess his reliability. In fact, the results are not favorable to Jerome’s credibility. When he first mentions the reading in his Commentary on Matthew (398), it is still conjecture [3]:

I have read in several manuscripts [Legi in nonnullis codicibus], … that … it is written as ‘through Isaiah the prophet, saying.’ Because the text is not at all found in Isaiah, I think it was later removed by prudent men. In my judgment [Sed mihi uidetur], it was originally published as follows: ‘[in order that what was written] through Asaph the prophet, saying.’ (Comm. Matt 13:35). [4]

Yet just a few years later, in his Homily 11 on Psalm 78 (77 LXX) (401), Jerome confidently asserts that what had formerly been in his judgment “is found in all the ancient copies” (in omnibus ueteribus codicibus). [5] It is unlikely of course that Jerome had discovered any actual MSS in the few years between these remarks. Presumably he would have mentioned such favorable evidence! So we are forced to ask, is Jerome extrapolating on the basis of a self-assured conjecture to evidence that he simply never saw? [6]

Whatever his motives, Jerome’s lack of inhibition in ascribing his personal conjecture to the Greek MS tradition should give us pause in assessing the reliability of his remarks elsewhere. Imagine that Homily 11 had been our only surviving source for the reading ασαφ in Matthew 13:35. We would quite reasonably infer that, had Jerome found this reading in all of his copies, it must have been at least in a great number of Greek copies. Yet we would be utterly mistaken!

Fast-forwarding to the year 415, Jerome asserts that there then existed “many Greek and many Latin codices” with the PA (Pelag. 2.17). But surely Jerome is being somewhat disingenuous in his appeal to “many” Latin copies. After all, this figure included copies of the Vulgate that he had himself revised to include the PA! And why is it necessary to cite Latin evidence at all for a reading that exists in many Greek MSS? Are we to wonder then whether Jerome is extrapolating in this case also to Greek evidence he never saw?


[1] University of Idaho, May 21, 2016.

[2] The evidence is still cited in NA28 and (apparently) UBS5. Jerome’s starting point seems to be Origen’s conjecture.

[3] Date according to Gryson et al., Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques latins de l’antiquité et du haut Moyen Âge (2007) 1:540.

[4] Cited from Dr. Donaldson’s handout, which cites FC 117:160-161;  SC 242:284.

[5] Date according to Gryson et al., 1:545. Cited from Dr. Donaldson’s handout, which cites FC 48:81-82 in modified form and CCSL 78:66-67.

[6] Dr. Donaldson plausibly suggests that Jerome simply assumed that his inference was correct and hence present in the old copies. See also, Amy M. Donaldson, “Explicit References to New Testament Variant Readings among Greek and Latin and Church Fathers.” (PhD Diss.; University of Notre Dame, 2009) 369-372, where she observes, “The homilist therefore assumes that Asaph is the predominant and oldest reading.” (p. 370) “Jerome especially emphasizes that his conjectured original  reading, Asaph, is theologically correct …” (p. 372)

4 thoughts on “How reliable is Jerome’s testimony for the pericope adulterae?

  1. Pete,
    This definitely highlights a problematic area in NTTC. I often wonder how much we should rely on evidence not seen. Whether as here, recounted by a Church Father or when we make arguments from absence, ( I.e. What a blank column might mean or why it is there!). Even if I prefer a different perspective we surely would be on better ground allowing the available evidence to speak.

    Do not misunderstand, these issues are still worth pursuing and giving well researched opinions, but to accept them as fact without the actual underlying evidence seems foolhardy to me.

    Tim

    • Hi Tim,

      I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comment. I certainly agree about letting the evidence speak. In the present case, I would suggest that what is most problematic has less to do with the absence of evidence than our assumptions about how the evidence must fit together, namely, in a tendency to assume what Jerome does not even claim, that his remarks on the PA describe the situation in the 380’s. I might also point to a tendency to overlook the complex yet troubled personality that lies behind much of this evidence.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Pete

  2. “Jerome asserts that there then existed “many Greek and many Latin codices” with the PA (Pelag. 2.17). But surely Jerome is being somewhat disingenuous in his appeal to “many” Latin copies. After all, this figure included copies of the Vulgate that he had himself revised to include the PA! And why is it necessary to cite Latin evidence at all for a reading that exists in many Greek MSS? Are we to wonder then whether Jerome is extrapolating in this case also to Greek evidence he never saw?”

    Your questions raise a number of questions:

    1) “why is it necesary…”
    Didn’t Jerome properly consider all variants through the lens of both Greek and Latin mss? A modern Greek-Vaticanus-primacy textual critic might consider it unnecessary but that is anachronistic.

    2) “revised to include the PA”
    The Old Latin mss we have in fact strongly favor inclusion, supported by the general thrust of Old Latin ECW in the times. Supported by the ease of omission and the specific statements that omission was common. The questionable extrapolation is in your assertion.

    3) “disingenuous… Vulgate”
    There is nothing disingenuous about the remark of Jerome – “many Greek and many Latin codices” . Clear as a bell. He was surely sharp enough to know the difference between a few recent Vulgate copies and the mass of Old Latin mss which he had used as the base of the Vulgate in 383 and still strongly represented the general ms stream for another 100-200 more years. (By the time of Cassiodorus, you have a more general tendency to supplantation.) The critique that he may have exaggerated is understandable, and I enjoy that element of your post.

    Steven Avery

  3. Hi Steven,

    I appreciate the push back and great questions! I’ll do my best to respond inline.

    “Didn’t Jerome properly consider all variants through the lens of both Greek and Latin mss?”

    Certainly Jerome may have done so. I have two hesitations:

    First, in the case of the ασαφ variant, Jerome seems to rely on conjecture. To me this suggests that he did not always check actual MSS.

    Second, my suspicion is raised because Jerome normally appeals only to the Greek in cases where the authority of a reading is at stake, while he tends to be quite critical of the Latin. (I should have mentioned this in the post, so good catch! In fact, this is a great point, I am creating a separate post to address it.)

    “The Old Latin mss we have in fact strongly favor inclusion”

    The oldest extant OL copy with the reading seems to be Codex Bezae (ca 400), which (if the paleography is accurate) comes after the date we have for the completion of the Vulgate gospels (ca 384). (Note that we have no Vulgate copies from this time frame to compare with Bezae.) The main issue with the OL evidence is that the PA is lacking in our oldest OL witness, Codex Vercellensis (a) (mid-fourth century) and it is lacking in three others (f l q).

    “Supported by the ease of omission and the specific statements that omission was common.”

    Augustine seems to be hypothesizing (perhaps from Ambrose’s earlier remark) about why the reading is not in certain MSS. But neither Ambrose nor Augustine seem to know of any actual case where the passage has been excised.

    “disingenuous… Vulgate”

    Certainly, Jerome’s plain meaning is clear enough. My hesitation arises from what seems to be his excessive optimism regarding the existence of Greek testimony in Matt 13:35 where there seems to be none, plus his general reputation to exaggerate. I wouldn’t suggest that Jerome was not himself ultimately aware of the state of the evidence as far as he could know it. But I am suggesting that he presents the evidence in the best possible light, does not necessarily mention unfavorable evidence, and (given his evident self-assurance) may even succeed in convincing himself of his own claims.

    Thanks for commenting!

    Pete

What do you think?