In a previous post, I pointed to some striking parallels between the full Johannine form of the pericope adulterae (= PA) and the circumstances of Jerome’s ignominious expulsion from Rome (385) under charges of sexual impropriety, suggesting that the final form of the PA and by implication its present “canonical” location at John 7:53 may reflect the editorial decision-making of Jerome himself.
In fact, it is difficult to show that the full form of the PA existed or that its present location was known prior to the time of the Vulgate gospels. As far as our evidence goes, the mature PA arrives on the scene in its canonical position at roughly the time of the Vulgate.
Consider the setup:
- a story of a condemned woman, hypocritical stone-throwers, and an unspecified sin told by Jerome’s mentor (Didymus, Comm. Eccl 223.14–20)
- a frustrated ambition to succeed Damasus to the chair of Peter (Epist. 45.3, 385 CE)
- a bitter lifelong grudge against the malicious “senate of Pharisees” that had orchestrated his downfall (Pref. to Did. Spir., 387 CE; cf. Oberhelman, 1991)
- “the only woman” who “had the power to subdue me” caught in the “scandal” (Epist. 45.3,4)
- virtual free rein to revise the gospel text in Latin with little if any apparent oversight (Pref. to the Gospels, 383 CE)
Two notes sound conspicuously in Jerome’s account of his personal circumstances that also resound in the PA and its immediate context in John 7:53-8:11. The first note is Jerome’s insistence on his total innocence, with a deft portrayal of his predicament as the righteous suffering of a martyr.
Jerome magnificently recalls his saintly entrance into the city:
“all Rome resounded with my praises. Almost every one concurred in judging me worthy of the episcopate. Damasus, of blessed memory, spoke no words but mine. Men called me holy, humble, eloquent.” (Epist. 45.3)
But in John 7:46, the temple guards had announced similarly about Jesus:
“No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46 NIV)
Then as undeserved accusations fall his way, Jerome adroitly takes up the mantle of the righteous sufferer :
“cunning malignity of Satan, that dost always persecute things holy!” (Epist. 45.4)
“Men have laid to my charge a crime of which I am not guilty; but I know that I must enter the kingdom of heaven through evil report as well as through good.” (Epist. 45.6)
“the Jews still call my master a magician. The apostle, likewise, is spoken of as a deceiver.” (Epist. 45.6)
But in John 7:51, Nicodemus had also spoken up against sham accusations against the innocent:
“Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (John 7:51 NIV)
After the retort of the “senate of Pharisees” in John 7:52, the PA appears almost out of nowhere in John’s narrative. Yet the setting is quite à propos to the autobiographical thought world of its presumptive initial editor, at least that is, if we ascribe the PA to the first textual tradition in which it is documented.
Of course, the second note in Jerome’s account is his obsessive preoccupation with the hypocrisy of his accusers (Comm. Tit 26, 386 CE; cf. Oberhelman, 1991). But that part of the story famously ends with their hypocrisy forever exposed in the dust, to testify as it were “wherever the gospel is preached.”
S. Oberhelman, “Jerome’s Earliest Attack on Ambrose: On Ephesians, Prologue (ML 26:469D–70A),” TAPA 121 (1991) 377–401.