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.


  1. See D. De Bruyne, “Lettres fictives de s. Jérôme,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 28 (1929) 229-234.
  2. Jerome’s surviving letters are rarely signed in a manner that would assert their authenticity as correspondence.
  3. P. Nautin, “Le premier échange épistolaire entre Jérôme et Damase: lettres réelles our fictives?,” Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 30 (1983) 331–44 at 331n1.
  4. French: “quand on les examine de près, ces documents posent des questions troublantes qu’il faut bien se décider un jour à aborder de front. Non qu’on puisse douter que les trois lettres de Jérôme soient bien de lui, mais de nombreux signes donnent à penser qu’il est aussi l’auteur des trois lettres de Damase et qu’il a composé toute cette correspondance après la mort du pape dans une circonstance où il lui était utile de se prévaloir de ses relations avec le pontife défunt.” Nautin, “Premier échange,” 331.
  5. Nautin, “Premier échange,” 339.
  6. Nautin, “Premier échange,” 339.
  7. Nautin, “Premier échange,” 343.

12 thoughts on “The pericope adulterae and Jerome’s use of fictional narrative

    • Hi James,
      The problem I see is that the OL manuscripts all post-date the PA (except it seems for one that happens to lack the PA), so we cannot easily admit their “texts” as evidence for an unstable tradition like the PA. If we assume for argument’s sake that the PA were introduced new into the gospel of John in 385, then a fifth century manuscript or capitulum that references the PA is not secure evidence that the tradition existed before 385. So it seems the patristic evidence must take precedence. But I certainly have no wish to invest precious time in a mere conspiracy theory, so I greatly appreciate your feedback on this. Thanks for commenting!


  1. Pete,
    I, for one, see this line of inquiry as particularly valuable. Many advocates of the PA actually value Jerome’s statements over the early manuscript evidence. It is one thing to take a position that the greater number of manuscripts, the Majority Text position, have the PA and argue for its originality, and a different and much more subjective position to accept what an exegete says about the PA while dismissing inquiry into that exegete’s motives. This is especially true when others have raised similar questions.

    Thanks again!

    • What strikes me most reading Jerome is the bitterness that comes out in his reflection on his Roman experience and his subsequent antagonism towards those he regarded as his accusers. Epistle 45 is one text that particularly leaves this impression. I have a lot of sympathy for Jerome’s situation. But when we read him we need to be cautious about too readily accepting his own skilfully drawn self-portrait, while overlooking his more human side. While Jerome was obviously brilliant, it is clear he also struggled with various personal and social issues of which he seems to have been fairly unaware.

      In my view the Latin manuscript evidence is inconclusive due to the level of inner-Latin copying that seems to have taken place in the tradition. Once the PA took hold in a few OL MSS — which appears to have been rather sudden — we’d expect it to have been copied relatively quickly throughout the tradition. So it is difficult to show that all these fifth-century MSS, Palatinus included, are not simply copies of the same initially-interpolated text. The absence of the PA in our only fourth-century OL manuscript, Vercellensis, is certainly suggestive that the tradition was not widely known at this time, but as a textual minus ultimately by itself inconclusive.

  2. Dear Peter, what are we to make of the fact that Ambrosius cites or refers to the PA five or six times i De Abraham 1.4.23, De aplogia prophetae David 1.10.51 (ca. 384), Epistula 50, Epistula 68, Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam 5.47 (ca. 386-387), and De Spiritu sancto 3.15 (381 CE). These are interesting passages. I am looking at them right now.

    I will take only one example, in Ep. 68, Ambrose says “Eleuans autem caput” (translating the Greek ανακυψας, only VL 2 has capud by the way, whereas Vg has erigens autem); here Ambrose also reads lapidauit with VL8, whereas the Vg and most VL MSS have condemnauit. Further in 8:11 Ambrose has “nec ego te damnabo” uniquely with VL 8, whereas the Vg and most VL MSS read “nec ego te condemnabo”. In the same verse Ambrose has “uade, et amodo uide ne pecces”. This is unparallelled in the VL MSS; the Vg has “uade et amplius iam noli peccare.” I wonder if not “amodo” is a very literal rendering of the Greek ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν? Then Ambrose says Cum accusatur mulier; caput Christus inclinat (κατακυψας). Vg reads inclinans se deorsum in 8:6 whereas a couple of VL MSS have inclinato capite (VL 6, 8, 30). This was an interesting exercise.

    • Dear Dr. Wasserman, certainly the evidence of Ambrose is critical, yet difficult to explain if we attribute the PA to Jerome, occurring as it does simultaneously with the Vulgate’s presumed release. Yet this very simultaneity is as startling as it is perhaps revealing. Where did Ambrose obtain his version? Perhaps Ambrose’s uncritical acceptance of the story accounts for Jerome’s disdain for Ambrose as an exegete.

      According to VL, amodo is used only by Ambrose (De Abraham 1.4.23; Ep. 50.7; 64.6; 68.17) and Jerome in (Pel. 2.17), but there are no MS attestations. This may suggest that Ambrose’s citation style tends to be free.

      Damnabo is used by Ambrose (4x) and Augustine (9x), but Augustine also uses condemnabo (4x), while Jerome uses condemno in Pelagians. Note there are variants in about half of the damnabo occurences in favor of condemnabo for damnabo in Ambrose (2x) and Augustine (4x). As you point out, it occurs also in MS 8, which is a fifth century MS that appears to have been copied in N. Italy, where Ambrose was active. Since the trend is towards condemnabo, damnabo may have been lost early in the Vulgate’s transmission.

      Cum accusatur mulier; caput Christus inclinat is not listed in VL. But inclinato capite occurs in Ambrose (Ep. 50; 68; De spiritu Sancto). It appears inclinans se deorsum occurs in no extant citations.

      Use of caput/capud occurs at v. 6 in both MSS 2 and 8. Later references in MS 2 (vv. 8, 10) may refer back to v. 6 rather than an exemplar by a process of recollection.

      Lapidauit occurs in Augustine as well.

      The evidence of Ambrose gives us a unique picture of the diversity of the PA from the moment it appears, but it is difficult to interpret. Did Ambrose cite the text before him literally or in paraphrase? How many versions of the full form of the PA were released? What do we make of the fact that Jerome himself cites a different version of the PA in Against the Pelagians?

      As for the Old Latin evidence, the texts may be early, but because the MSS are fifth century, we cannot be sure that the PA (as an unstable tradition) was part of the initial text or interpolated later after the story became popular. Of course, interpolation only needed to occur once for the story to circulate within the Latin tradition.


  3. Dear Peter, as you say “certainly the evidence of Ambrose is critical, yet difficult to explain if we attribute the PA to Jerome, occurring as it does simultaneously with the Vulgate’s presumed release.”

    This was my point. I simply wanted to demonstrate that the Old Latin evidence (also in the PA), contained in codices from the fifth century and later, attest to a much older text. And Ambrose of course used an older text than the Vulgate. Yes, even Jerome did! The point about amodo was just to say that this seems like a Grecism.

    Finally, it is interesting to note that Ambrose starts out his Ep. 68 by stating that he finds this pericope in the Gospel of John, “Ac semper quidem decantata quaestio et celebris absolutio fuit mulieris eius quae in libro euangelii, quod secundum Ioannem scribitur, adulterii rea oblata est Christo,” etc (68.2). Cf. De Abraham 1,4,23: “Denique illi adulterae quam in euangelio obtulerunt …”

    In this connection Ambrose again reads Vade et amodo uide ne pecces.” Interestingly, Hugh Houghton points out in his monograph on Augustine’s Text of John (OUP), p. 261 that “in Augustine’s earliest citations of John 8:11, De sermone domini 1.16.43, [he] appears to have a rather loose text, uade uide deinceps ne pecces, but this is surprisingly close to Ambrose’s uade et amodo uide ne pecces (De Abraham 1.4.23, Epistulae 50.17, 64.6, 68.17).”

    • Dear Prof. Wasserman, as I suggested in my comment after the portion you cited, Ambrose’s evidence is critical because, despite apparent difficulties, its timing suggests that the Vulgate is his source:

      “Yet this very simultaneity is as startling as it is perhaps revealing. Where did Ambrose obtain his version?”

      But Ambrose’s idiosyncrasies are a difficulty for the Old Latin no less than the Vulgate. If the Old Latin existed in the 380’s, why does Ambrose not cite it? The fact that he does not suggests that the tradition was still in flux at this time.

      Again, Ambrose’s reference to “the Gospel of John” does not exclude an initial Vulgate source. As metropolitan bishop of Milan, recently wrested from the “Arians” and residence of the imperial court in the West, Ambrose was in no position to question his text. As catecumen-appointed-bishop, Ambrose was under intense pressure to prove he was fit for his job, as it were, to save face. What else could the bishop say if his Vulgate copy (which he believed sanctioned by Pope Damasus) had the PA in John? Of course, we would expect Jerome to exploit this vulnerability. (Recall that by this point, Jerome had turned against Ambrose.)

      As for verbal discrepancies in PA citations, Rufinus informs us of Jerome’s method of distributing copies of his translation in a manner that would account for the variation we find:

      “[H]ow are we to regard those translations of yours which you are now sending about everywhere, through our churches and monasteries, through all our cities and walled towns?” (Apol. 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475)

      The procedure described raises the real possibility that textual variants and even corrections might have found their way into new copies of John that were missing in previous copies. The fact that Jerome himself apparently knew two versions of the PA suggests that, if he introduced the full form of the PA, he revised his work at least once.

      The fact remains that Jerome had unparalleled access both to the text and to those who were the first to cite it. It’s hard to find anyone better positioned than Jerome to have interpolated the PA at John 7:53 if that’s what occurred.

      • Hi, again my reply somehow disappeared again. I have a hard time understanding your argument here. You said: “But Ambrose’s idiosyncrasies are a difficulty for the Old Latin no less than the Vulgate. If the Old Latin existed in the 380’s, why does Ambrose not cite it?”

        But, the Old Latin is no one unified text at the end of the fourth century in the way the Vulgate is (you know there are various text types and the situation is complex). As I tried to demonstrate (and I continued with the exercise som there is much more to say), Ambrose goes with a number of OL MSS in rather unique readings. He clearly attests to a pre-Vulgate text even in the PA – it doesn’t take an expert to realize that. But I am not the first to point out that (see e.g. Hugh Houghton’s new book on the Latin NT), although I have not seen a full-fledged analysis (there is an analysis by Caragliano but I find it deficient, not to mention Muncey, but that is another story).

        • Dear Prof. Wasserman, my apologies for being unclear. To begin, I should clarify that my remarks concern the Old Latin tradition and Ambrose _only_ in the PA — certainly not in general.

          It is clear that we disagree on whether MS 8 must pre-date Ambrose in the PA. In my view, we cannot assume MS 8’s textual priority here given the fifth-century date of its MS _and_ the instability of the PA tradition. We should note that the PA is still lacking in our only fourth-century Old Latin manuscript, MS 3 (second half of the fourth century, according to Houghton), generally considered to attest a pre-cursor of the text-type in MS 8. Given that we cannot even show that the PA is part of the fourth-century Old Latin/”pre-Vulgate” continuous MS tradition, neither can we show that MS 8 is not influenced here by Ambrose rather than vice versa. We simply have no warrant here to assume the continuous MS evidence must pre-date the patristic evidence or the Vulgate for that matter simply because it does elsewhere.

          • Again, Ambrose is not following OL MS 8. His wordings agree with various OL MSS at various points contra the Vulgate, confirming that this variety of readings existed already at the time when the Vulgate was translated. To say that this variety of variant readings, some which look archaic, developed instantly from the Vulgate is untenable. Even Augustine, who praised Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Gospel, cites other readings agreeing with Ambrose against the Vulgate.

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