Did Jerome suspend his criteria to include the pericope adulterae?

At the end of the fourth century, the Latin Vulgate is one of the earliest continuous manuscript traditions to attest the pericope adulterae (= PA) in John, if not the earliest. But given Jerome’s stated criteria, namely, to confine himself only to early Greek texts, and what we know about the Greek tradition, namely, that the earliest non-bilingual witness of the PA dates to the ninth century (K 017), we find ourselves virtually driven to the conclusion that, in his revision of John, Jerome severely neglected his own rules to include a pericope that — if he even did find it in his tradition — he nevertheless must have known failed his criteria!

Now Jerome claims to have seen many Greek manuscripts with the PA:

The story of the adulterous woman who was accused before the Lord is found in many Greek and many Latin manuscripts of the gospel of John. (Jerome, Against the Pelagians 2.17, my translation)

But that was in 415, thirty years after the fact! (Against the Pelagians, 2.17, see post) In that context, Jerome quite uncharacteristically cites the authority of Latin manuscripts, certainly an anomaly for one who normally rants against the Old Latin and its proponents, for example, as the famous “two-legged asses” (see post). (Of course, it would be somewhat unfair if Jerome included Vulgate copies in the tally after thirty years of copying! But can we be sure he does not have some of his own copies in mind?)

But in at least one other case where Jerome claims to have seen Greek manuscripts, he is convicted by his own testimony of a rather severe case of exaggeration, offering a conjecture in his Commentary on Matthew in 398, that just three years later, in his Homily 11 on Psalm 78, he now claims “is found in all the ancient copies” (see post).1

So what are Jerome’s criteria for his revision? They are plainly stated in his Preface to the Four Gospels:

I therefore promise in this short Preface the four Gospels only, which are to be taken in the following order, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, as they have been revised by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts. Only early ones have been used. (NPNF 2.6, 488, italics mine)

Jerome claims to have limited himself only to early Greek texts. Of course, in John, we happen to have some of these old gospel texts in P66 and P75, which as we are well aware, do not contain the PA.2 So even if Jerome had actually seen a Greek manuscript with the PA in the 380’s, it is still harder to believe that such a manuscript would have been among the early copies he claims to have used elsewhere.

So it seems unlikely that Jerome did not set aside his criteria to include the story. By his own principles, Jerome should have excluded the PA assuming he found it, but he chose not to.

We might inquire then as to what could be different about the PA that seems to have inspired Jerome to have included it against his critical judgment? As I have noted elsewhere, there are remarkable parallels between the PA and Jerome’s own story (see post; and more recently, here and here).

But how can we be sure Jerome’s criteria would have excluded the PA?

Fortunately, there is a similar case just three chapters earlier in John, in the tradition of the angel stirring the water in John 5:4. Here the witness groups in support of the apparent interpolation are arrayed as follows:

  • For: 2 3 4 6 8 14 15 22
  • Against: 5 10 11 13
  • Earliest extant Greek MS: A (V)
  • Vulgate: Against

The alignment is remarkably similar in support of the PA:

  • For: 2 5 6 8 14 15 22
  • Against: 3 10 11 13
  • Earliest extant Greek MS: D (bilingual, 400), K (non-bilingual, IX)
  • Vulgate: For

In neither case are there extant Greek MSS that precede the Vulgate, so in either case we might question whether Jerome had Greek support.

We should note however that the tradition of the angel has better support in the Old Latin tradition, including the support of our only fourth-century Old Latin witness, Vercellensis (a), but the tradition is nevertheless excluded by Jerome. Since Jerome’s opinion of the Old Latin was not favorable, we can assume he found no early Greek testimony. The Letter to Marcella should suffice to capture Jerome’s sentiments on the Old Latin:

the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved to be faulty by the variations which all of them exhibit, and my object has been to restore them to the form of the Greek original, from which my detractors do not deny that they have been translated. If they dislike water drawn from the clear spring, let them drink of the muddy streamlet. (Epist. 27.1 “To Marcella”; NPNF 2.6, 44)

So we should be surprised indeed if Jerome allowed a tradition into his revision solely on Latin support. We should rather expect him summarily to exclude such traditions.

Yet three chapters later in Jerome’s revision we find the PA, which has significantly less support in the Latin tradition, with no extent non-bilingual Greek support for four centuries. So Jerome’s motives for including the PA seem ulterior to the textual support.

But let us suppose for argument’s sake that Jerome did find the PA in the Old Latin tradition in 384. Here we have a case analogous to John 5:4, where the distribution of witnesses is similar though decidedly weaker. So if Jerome had found the PA in John in just the Old Latin tradition but not the Greek, we should expect him summarily to have excluded it, but he apparently does not. Jerome evidently valued the story highly enough that he was willing to make an exception for it.

But if Jerome did not find the PA in his text or if he found it but it did not meet his criteria, what then might have drawn him to this remarkable story? What here induced Jerome to prefer the muddy streamlet over the clear spring? Was it the story of forgiveness? Admiration for his teacher Didymus? Identification with the accused? Anger at the hypocrites? Or perhaps sympathy for a beloved friend similarly accused? It seems we shall never know.


  1. I am indebted to Dr. Amy M. Donaldson for this example.
  2. But on the dates of these MSS, see Brent Nongbri, “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135 (2016) 405–437 and Brent Nongbri, “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P.Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014) 1-35.

2 thoughts on “Did Jerome suspend his criteria to include the pericope adulterae?

  1. Pete,
    Thanks for the articles and discussion with Dr. W. on Jerome and the PA. While we may never know, as you say, what we do know is that the earliest surviving Greek manuscripts that precede Jerome’s Vulgate do not include the PA. Based on your observations, it also appears now that even the OL tradition weakly attested a muted form of the PA. All of this, in my opinion, not only confirms that the PA is not original to John, but that the often cited idea that the PA is a historical account of Jesus action is also unlikely.


    • Hi Tim,
      Thanks for commenting! Certainly there’s a lot to consider with this complex tradition. We can’t rule out that Didymus could be citing an ancient tradition, perhaps from a Hebrew gospel. But it seems much of the literary detail that makes the full version of the story compelling has come fairly late.


What do you think?