Is the pericope adulterae Jerome’s indictment against his Roman accusers?

In an earlier post, I asked whether Jerome might have introduced the full form of the pericope adulterae (=PA) to its present location at John 7:53. Indeed, just as he was completing the final touches on his revision of the gospels, Jerome was himself hauled before a tribunal of “elders” to face charges of sexual misconduct in connection with his wealthy sponsor Paula, before (in his view) hypocritical accusers, as he relates in Epistle 45:

my sex is my one crime, and even on this score I am not assailed, save when there is a talk of Paula going to Jerusalem. Very well, then. They believed my accuser when he lied (Epist. 45.2; NPNF 2.6, 59).

The parallels (noted in this post) between Jerome’s contemporary experience at Rome and the scene depicted in the PA are indeed striking. Might we wonder then whether Jerome’s decision to include the PA in the Vulgate was at all impacted by his having been at the receiving end of accusations similar to those encountered by the “adulteress”? Might this painful experience have led him to interject new details such as Jesus (presumably) writing judgment against the accusers on the ground?

Our Dependence on Jerome for Background on the Vulgate

Now the precise date Jerome completed his Vulgate gospels is not known for certain.1 The year 384 is typically cited on the basis of his Preface to the Four Gospels, thought to have been presented to Damasus before his death in December 384.

The problem though is our nearly complete reliance on Jerome for information regarding his activities in connection with his revision. To make matters worse, some years ago noted Jerome scholar Pierre Nautin credibly challenged the authenticity of Damasus’ side of Jerome’s putative letter exchanges with the pontiff, showing just how likely it is that Jerome himself composed both sides of these exchanges.2

Now if this were true, not only is Jerome’s credibility at stake, but so too is our understanding of the circumstances of his Vulgate revision, from the timing of its completion to the nature of Jerome’s relationship with Damasus and the latter’s oversight (or lack thereof) to the validity of Jerome’s commission and authority to produce his revision at all. If Jerome never presented his gospels to Damasus, if his letter exchanges and Preface are later inventions, this has significant implications for the PA, whose first indirectly documented occurrence lies within this tradition.

The Convergence of Early PA Sources around Jerome

It is certainly remarkable that our early sources on the PA all seem to converge around the time Jerome completed his revision of the gospels, just as he was dismissed from Rome. It is natural to wonder then whether Jerome had any special investment in the story in the form in which it appears in John. Did Jerome expand an earlier form of the story, received, for example, from his mentor Didymus?

Now at least four significant elements are found in the PA that are lacking in Didymus’ account yet paralleled in Jerome’s experience.3 For all we know, Jerome himself may have introduced these elements:

  • The elders are identified as scribes and Pharisees perhaps to emphasize their hypocrisy. But Jerome later refers to the Roman tribunal as a “senate of Pharisees” (Pref. to Did. Spir., 387 CE).
  • The sin of the woman is identified as adultery, analogous to the charge of sexual misconduct leveled against Jerome regarding his relationship with Paula.
  • The scribes and Pharisees intend to trap Jesus. But Jerome describes his adversaries as similarly deceitful, noting that they “kissed my hands, yet attacked me with the tongues of vipers; sympathy was on their lips, but malignant joy in their hearts” (Epist. 45.2).
  • Jesus (it is presumed) writes the indictment of the woman’s accusers on the ground just as, presumably, Jerome would have liked to indict his own accusers, though he could not do so directly due to their positions of power.

The PA: Jerome’s Indictment against his Accusers?

Is it plausible then that Jerome might ultimately have seen Jesus’ act of writing in the PA as an indictment against his accusers? Chris Keith makes an incisive observation when he remarks that both Jerome and Ambrose take note of Jesus’ writing because they too were writers. As Prof. Keith observes:

“Ambrose and Jerome know PA in GJohn and find Jesus’ writing to be significant.” 4

Keith points out that Jerome and Ambrose are also the first to cite the story’s place in John and, moreover, that knowledge of Jesus’ writing is linked in our sources with knowledge of the PA’s location in John:

“The evidence concerning Ambrose and Jerome being the first Christian authors to comment upon Jesus’ acts of writing in PA may suggest that PA’s insertion is closer to the context of these fathers in the fourth century … [O]ne must note that every Christian author who knows Jesus’ writing in PA also knows PA in GJohn. … patristic knowledge of Jesus’ acts of writing in PA has an affinity with the version of PA in GJohn.” 5

This leads Keith to suggest that the narrator’s particular interest in Jesus’ act of writing may reflect the interpolator’s own interest this detail:

“PA’s narrative reads smoothly if one omits John 8.6, 8, and the narrator seems to be the only one in the scene who cares about Jesus’ writing. This raises the possibility that the interpolator added the acts of writing in John 8.6, 8 to the story.” 6

Now if Jerome were in fact the interpolator, we have good reason to suspect that his source of inspiration for Jesus’ writing on the ground is Jeremiah 17:13:

“O Lord, hope of Israel, let all who forsake you be disgraced, let all who turned away be written on the earth, for they have deserted the Lord, the spring of life.” (Jer 17:13 LXX, my translation)

In this passage, Jeremiah is beseeching God for justice against his persecutors, precisely what Jerome was looking for with regard to his Roman accusers! In fact, Jerome makes the connection to Jeremiah explicit in his (much later) tract Against the Pelagians:

“The scribes and Pharisees kept accusing her and vigorously pressing their case, eager to stone her according to the law. But Jesus bending down began to write with his finger on the ground the sins of the accusers (and indeed of all mortals), according to what is written in the prophet: “Those who forsake you shall be written on the earth,” and lifting his head, he said to them: The first of you without sin may throw a stone at her.” (Pelag. 2.17, my translation)

Now Jerome had only recently translated Origen’s homilies on Ezekiel and Jeremiah (382) and was just preparing to translate Jeremiah from Hebrew (389). So as he endured the ignominy of his ejection from Rome, Jeremiah’s indictment against his persecutors who had refused to repent of their own hypocrisy could not have been far from mind:

“They keep saying to me,
“Where is the word of the LORD?
Let it now be fulfilled [i.e. against them]!”(Jer 17:15 NIV)

So Jerome’s allusion to Jeremiah allows him to accuse his accusers discretely, without their knowledge. Of course, this is classic subversion. After all, Jerome knew he was powerless before his enemies, forced out of Rome against his will, presumably to return to the diocese where he had been ordained. Like many others in similarly overwhelming situations, Jerome turned to literary expression for a voice, an avenue for which his classical education left him uniquely qualified. His mentor Didymus had left the ideal seed of a story, already found in certain gospels. Finally, the Vulgate revision gave him an unexpected opportunity to engrave a record of his accusers’ wrongs forever onto the New Testament text:

“Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool,
inscribed with a flint point.” (Jer 17:1a NIV)

And shall we add to the number of Judah, Jerome’s so-called “senate of Pharisees,” and parchment and ink to the tools of iron age Palestine?