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.


  1. Transactions of the American Philological Association 121 (1991) 377-401.
  2. Oberhelman, “Attack,” 377, 387-388
  3. Oberhelman, “Attack,” 392.
  4. See Oberhelman, “Attack,” 378
  5. In this passage, Jerome is citing Rufinus’ words back to him.
  6. Oberhelman cites F. Cavallera, who equated the “senate of Pharisees” with “une assemblée du clergé romain.” See Oberhelman, “Attack,” 390, who cites Cavallera 2:87.)
  7. Oberhelman, “Attack,” 399.
  8. Oberhelman, “Attack,” 399, paraphrasing Jerome’s On Titus 26:596B-97A and 26:597B, 597D-98A.
  9. Oberhelman, “Attack”, 399-400 citing Jerome’s On Titus, 601B-C and 603B.
  10. Oberhelman, “Attack,” 400, commenting on Jerome’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:11.
  11. Oberhelman, “Attack,” 401.

4 thoughts on “Are Jerome’s Roman accusers the Pharisees of the pericope adulterae?

  1. I am rephrasing my question to the previous interesting blogpost here. In light of your proposal that Jerome *may have* edited and interpolated the PA into GJohn (this is how I read you), what do you make out of the differences between the Vulgate version of the PA and the Old Latin witnesses to the passage. What is your explanation of the text form in the OL witnesses? The Latin evidence is conveniently displayed in an appendix in Wieland Willker’s textual commentary on the PA here:

    • Hello Prof. Wasserman,

      It sounds like you read me correctly. As you mention, I am suggesting that Jerome *may* himself have edited and interpolated the full form of the PA in GJohn from an earlier (even ancient) tradition, presumably that of Didymus.

      But you raise the important question of text forms. Willker’s results are not entirely inconsistent with the possibility of an initial Vulgate, when we note that the Vulgate fits within Willker’s groupings (p. 32) and essentially parallels the Old Latin forms. Consider:

      (1) “all Old Latins [including Vulgate] basically represent the same text type (including e)” (p. 31)
      (2) “The Old Latin [including Vulgate] actually is then (by far) the oldest witness to this type of text!” (p. 31)

      Of course, my suggestion requires that the “Old Latin” MSS would (in this case only!) reflect a text derivative of the Vulgate, though given the sudden explosion in interest, the uptake seems to have been almost immediate (consider Bezae’s text arriving in just over a decade).


    • Thank you, Tim. I agree this would be valuable. The question I see is whether we can demonstrate from the data that the Vulgate was *not* the initial text. If we can, it would be difficult to suggest that Jerome penned his version first. The unique character of e, c, and ff2 seems to demand an explanation.


What do you think?