The pericope adulterae and Jerome’s use of fictional narrative

In several recent posts, I have explored the possibility that Jerome himself was the author and interpolator of the pericope adulterae (= PA) in the form and location in which it appears in his Vulgate revision of John. I have based this suggestion largely on five observations:

  1. The sudden interest in the final form of the PA and knowledge of its place in John at the time the Vulgate gospels were introduced (c. 385), especially among Latin writers who were likely to have been acquainted with Jerome and his revision.
  2. The questionable reliability of Jerome’s testimony to the PA thirty years later in Against Pelagians (415), when he appeals to the existence of Greek and Latin copies which by this time had thirty years to propagate.
  3. Uncertainty as to the precise date the Vulgate gospels were completed, due to our nearly complete dependence for this date on a dubious letter exchange between Jerome and Damasus.
  4. A series of striking parallels between the story related in the PA and Jerome’s circumstances in 385 concerning his bitter dismissal from Rome under charges of sexual misconduct and his attachment to a woman (Paula) who was by implication caught in the act of adultery by those whom he called a hypocritical “senate of Pharisees.”
  5. The uncanny overlap between sources detected in the PA and Jerome’s literary activities in the mid-380’s. In particular, we might consider:
    1. In producing his own Commentary on Ecclesiastes (388), it is likely Jerome consulted the Commentary on Ecclesiastes of his esteemed mentor Didymus, which attests a shorter version of the PA, featuring Jesus and a condemned woman. So Jerome was likely in contact with Didymus’ version of the story just as he was completing the Vulgate.
    2. Jerome’s use of Jeremiah’s imprecations against his own accusers in the Preface to his translation of Didymus’ Treatise on the Holy Spirit, where he imagines to a boiling pot (Jeremiah 1:13) tilting over his persecutors, while in the PA, Jesus writes the accusers of the woman in the dust (Jeremiah 17:13).

Of course, one obvious problem with any suggestion that Jerome may have authored the PA is that it seems to accuse him of passing off a fictional narrative as a genuine tradition about Jesus. The problem is little diminished if we suggest that Jerome merely interpolated an existing tradition with certain details from his own experience.

But as Donatien De Bruyne pointed out long ago, Jerome’s use of fictional narrative settings is not uncommon in his letters.1 Nor does Jerome’s use of fiction necessarily reflect an intent to deceive, given that the letters seem to have been prepared expressly for publication.2

If De Bruyne’s understanding is accurate, Jerome used fictional narrative settings for a variety of ends, for example, moral instruction (Epistles 117 and 147) or as a background for exegetical inquiry (Epistles 106, 120, 121). Consider:

  • In Contra Vigilantium 3, Jerome acknowledges that a story he recounted in his Epistle 117 is fictitious:3

“he [Vigilantius] may choose once more to misrepresent me, and say that I have trumped up a case for the sake of showing off my rhetorical and declamatory powers in combating it, like the letter which I wrote to Gaul, relating to a mother and daughter who were at variance.” (NPNF 2.6, 418)

The letter in question contains Jerome’s supposed advice to a monk from Gaul, whose mother and sister had welcomed monks to live in their respective homes. Of course, Jerome’s advice is for the women to dismiss the monks and live together lest they provoke temptation and scandal.

  • D. de Bruyne points out that the setting of Jerome’s Epistle 106 to Sunnias and Fretela is likely fictitious. The letter alleges that two inquisitive sojourners from Getica have arrived in Bethlehem desiring a full account of the differences between Jerome’s “Roman” psalter of 383 and the LXX psalter, an inquiry that seems unlikely to have driven two travelers across the Empire, while (perhaps too conveniently) the identity of travelers from a remote provenance is not easily verified! At the same time, the rather obscure inquiry fits Jerome’s interests particularly well.
  • de Bruyne points to the setting of Epistle 120 as likely fictitious. In this letter, a certain woman, Hedibia, from Gaul with a burning interest in the study of Scripture approaches Jerome with twelve questions concerning “contradictions” in the New Testament. Again, we might note the somewhat contrived setup as well as the suspicious alignment of “Hedibia’s” interests with Jerome’s.
  • de Bruyne suggests that the setting of Epistle 121 is likely fictitious. In this letter, another woman from Gaul, a certain Algasia, approaches Jerome for answers to her eleven most pressing New Testament questions.
  • de Bruyne also suggests as fictitious Jerome’s lurid tale in Epistle 147, concerning a certain wayward monk, Sabinianus, who commits adultery at Rome and attempts to seduce of a nun in Bethlehem.

These contrived narrative settings fall into two categories. On the one hand is Jerome’s self-assured and somewhat self-promoting topos of the “celebrity” scholar to whom petitioners flock from remote corners of the empire to test his exegetical insight (Epistles 106, 120, 121). On the other though is a more troubled preoccupation with sexual guilt, temptation, and hypocrisy, closer to the themes encountered in the PA. Here we find what seems a losing struggle to escape sexual immorality involving monks, widows, virgins, and nuns. In both categories, a choice of more remote settings in Gaul and the distant Latin West makes it difficult to challenge the veracity of the narrative.

While these purely fictitious settings seem harmless enough, in other cases Jerome’s apparent reference to real persons and events seems to cross the line in an apparent intent to mislead. According to Nautin’s suggestion, this is notably the case for Epistle 35, which appears not to have been composed by Pope Damasus to Jerome (as claimed), but rather by Jerome himself to secure support for his projects, as Nautin explains:

when examined closely, these documents [Epistles 35 and 36] raise some troubling questions that we must decide one day to confront directly. Not that we can doubt that the three letters of Jerome are by him, but many indications suggest that he is also the author of three letters attributed to Damasus and that he composed this correspondence after the death of the pope at a time when it was useful to take advantage of his relationship with the deceased pontiff.4

Following Jerome’s established topos of the inquisitive petitioner, Epistle 35 poses five exegetical questions lifted straight out of Ambrosiaster’s Questions on the Old Testament. As Nautin argues, Jerome’s purpose in using a fictional setting is threefold:

  1. To demonstrate his superiority as a biblical scholar over Ambrosiaster5
  2. To display his close relationship with the pope and suggest the pope’s approval of his scholarly projects6
  3. To show that he had long contemplated a Latin translation of Didymus’ work on the Holy Spirit lest the timing of his own translation be misunderstood as a direct attack on Ambrose, as it was apparently intended7

Nautin suggests that the rest of Damasus’ putative private correspondence with Jerome is similarly fictitious, including Epistle 19, in which the pontiff allegedly inquires about the meaning of the word “Hosanna,” as though he were Jerome’s obedient pupil. Of course, the point is to allow Jerome to display his allegedly copious knowledge of Hebrew. In a similar vein, Epistle 21 responds to Damasus’ alleged request for a minute explanation of the parable of the prodigal son.

So what are we to make of the fictional element in Jerome’s epistles? Certainly, if we are to cite Jerome’s testimony as textual evidence, we must be fully aware that he is not always trustworthy. Moreover, we cannot apologize for Jerome’s lack of reliability as a kind of forgetfulness or a fondness for exaggeration. The consequence of being too accepting is to attribute to the early gospel what was likely never there.

The ultimate question though is how far Jerome would be willing to exploit this device of narrative fiction beyond the epistolary genre. Would he have introduced a fictional narrative into a gospel? Might he have justified this on the basis of Didymus’ use of a similar story? As textual scholars we cannot afford to be too generous towards Jerome when it comes to his inclusion of the PA in the Vulgate when we encounter so much willingness to employ fiction elsewhere.

It is strange indeed that the final form of the PA, if it is truly an ancient tradition, cannot be traced before the decade of the first indirect tradition in which it is attested. It is odd that this sensational story remained so well hidden before Jerome’s Vulgate burst on the scene. In fact, the position of the PA in John strikes us as odd until we read it through the lens of Jerome’s bitter experience.