Rufinus’s “other” citation of the pericope adulterae – against Jerome

Rufinus’s knowledge of the pericope adulterae (= PA) is usually cited in connection with his translation of Eusebius’s Church History, where he appears to have changed Papias’s reference to a woman “accused of many sins” to an “adulterous” woman, presumably under the influence of the PA found in John.

But Rufinus cites the PA in another context that is potentially revealing of Jerome’s own ambiguous connection with the story. 1 In his Apology against Jerome (401), Rufinus takes his erstwhile friend Jerome to task for the vicious accusations he has lodged against fellow Christians for Origenism, while failing to acknowledge his own record of promoting Origen. He then cites the story of Jesus and the adulteress (which he oddly calls “a parable”) to demonstrate the proper response of a convicted conscience, ironically displayed by the Jewish accusers:

“There is a parable of the Gospel which illustrates this. A woman taken in adultery was brought before our Lord by the Jews, so that they might see what judgment he would pronounce according to the law. He, the merciful and pitying Lord, said: ‘He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone at her.’ And then, it is said, they all departed. The Jews, impious and unbelieving though they were, yet blushed through their own consciousness of guilt; since they were sinners, they would not appear publicly as executing vengeance on sinners. And the robber upon the cross, said to the other robber who was hanging like him on a cross, and was blaspheming, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing we are in the same condemnation?” But we condemn in others the things of which we ourselves are conscious; yet we neither blush like the Jews nor are softened like the robber.” (Against Jerome 1.44; NPNF 2.3, 459) 2

Rufinus’s reference is of particular significance because the work in which it is found is intended for Jerome, another writer who cites the PA and presumably included it in his Vulgate revision. Nevertheless, if Rufinus alludes to the Vulgate version, the connection is obscure at best. In favor of the allusion is the fact that the woman is actively “brought before” Jesus “so that they might see what judgment he would pronounce according to the law,” suggesting that the intent is to test Jesus against the Law of Moses (as it is in John). Yet Rufinus does not explicitly mention a “test” and his account seems somewhat abstracted from the context of John, where the antagonists are identified specifically as the scribes and Pharisees. Rufinus rather identifies the antagonists simply as “the Jews.”

Much more palpable is the connection with Didymus’s account, which, like that of Rufinus, identifies the antagonists as “the Jews.” The connection is especially strong in the latter half of Didymus’s story (lines 10-13):

We find, therefore, 7 in certain gospels [the following story], A woman, it says, was condemned by the Jews for a sin and 8 was being sent to be stoned in the place where that was customary to happen. The saviour, it says, 9 when he saw her and observed that they were ready to stone her, said to those 10 who were about to cast stones, ‘He who has not sinned, let him take a stone and cast it.’ 11 If anyone is conscious in himself not to have sinned, let him take up a stone and smite her. And no one 12 dared. Since they knew in themselves and perceived that they themselves were guilty in some things, they did not 13 dare to strike her.3

Rufinus’s closest parallel with Didymus is found at the end of the story, where we find a warning against judging (an idea that is not explicit in the Johannine version). In both Rufinus and Didymus, the accusers are unexpectedly convicted in their conscience and quickly depart from the scene. We must conclude then that, despite his allusion to details known only in the Johannine story, Rufinus adopts primarily the perspective and emphasis of Didymus’s version.

But perhaps most striking of all is Rufinus’s attribution of the story, not to John’s gospel (as we might expect from a Latin writer writing fifteen years after the Vulgate), but rather to “the Gospel.” Of course, this recalls Didymus’s own attribution of the story to “certain gospels.”

What then shall we make of Rufinus’s puzzling silence about his apparent dependence on details found only in John? Why with the Vulgate so close at hand does he draw such clear parallels with Didymus?

In fact, the links to Didymus are no coincidence. Throughout the Apology, Rufinus repeatedly brings up Jerome’s relationship to Didymus, which he treats as symptomatic of Jerome’s invidious habit of slandering fellow Christians, as Rufinus observes:

“it is habitual to him to disparage all good men, and that, if he can find something to blame in one man after another of those who are highly esteemed and have gained a name in literature, he thinks that he has added to his own reputation.” (Against Jerome 2.43; NPNF 2.3, 480)

And again:

“these invectives of yours are the cause of sadness and confusion to all who fear God, since they see you a prey to this hideous lust of detraction, and me driven to the wretched necessity of recrimination.” (Against Jerome 2.39; NPNF 2.3, 478)

Like Rufinus himself, the esteemed Didymus has suffered from Jerome’s pen the same vituperative attacks for his alleged Origenism. Rufinus reminds Jerome that they both had once claimed Didymus as their mentor, though Jerome has now deserted the teacher he once “praised to the sky”:

“I will therefore set forth a Preface of his by which you may see … how he praises Didymus to the sky, though he has since cast him down even to the infernal region.” (Against Jerome, 2.23; NPNF 2.3, 470)

Rufinus suggests that Jerome had used his relationship with Didymus to advance his career, while quickly dissociating himself when the relationship proved inconvenient:

“He [Jerome] … has not in his whole life stayed more than thirty days at Alexandria where Didymus lived; yet almost all through his books he boasts, at length and at large, that he was the pupil of Didymus the seer, that he had Didymus as his initiator, that is, his preceptor in the holy Scriptures; and the material for all this boasting was acquired in a single month. But I, for the sake of God’s work, stayed six years.” (Against Jerome, 2.12; NPNF 2.3, 466)

According to Rufinus, Jerome has shown more loyalty to the Jewish teachers on whom he relies for his Hebrew translation. Yet in this ironic “parable,” it is the Jews who repent under the Savior’s conviction. So while the Vulgate allusions reflect Rufinus’s context in the Latin church, the parallels with Didymus reflect a last plea to Jerome on behalf of their former friendship.



  1. As far as I can tell, this important reference has not been addressed in recent text-critical literature, though admittedly my review was selective. It is however cited in the Vetus Latina, vol. 19, Evangelium secundum Iohannem (pp. 543, 546).
  2. quandam Evangelii parabolam: Oblata est Domino a Judaeis adultera, ut viderent quid de ea secundum legem judicaret. Ille misericors et miserator Dominus, dixit, Si quis vestrum peccatum non habet, mittat super eam lapidem (John 8:7). Et tunc omnes, inquit, discesserunt. Et Judaei quidem licet impii et increduli, tamen erubuerunt conscientias suas, ne cum ipsi essent peccatores, in peccatores viderentur ulcisci. Et latro ille de cruce dicebat ad alterum latronem, qui simul pendebat in cruce, et blasphemabat, Quia nec tu Deum times, vel quod in eodem nos sumus supplicio (Luke 23:40). Nos cum haec eadem quae in nobis sunt, condemnemus in aliis, nec cum Judaeis erubescimus, nec cum latrone mitescimus. (MPL 21.584)
  3. B. D. Ehrman, ‘Jesus and the Adulteress,’ New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 24–44 at 25.

9 thoughts on “Rufinus’s “other” citation of the pericope adulterae – against Jerome

  1. Good find, Peter!

    I know not why it is considered by some to be puzzling when someone references “the Gospel” or (as Didymus does) “in certain Gospels” as if the author might have been referring to some obscure text. People write to be understood. If the text being references were some obscure thing, surely this would be mentioned. The natural understanding of such phrases is that the author is referring to codices containing the four canonical Gospels.

    • Hi James,

      If you call it “a find,” that gives me confidence. I wouldn’t argue with your thorough reading on these passages!

      True, it cannot be excluded that “the Gospel” may reference the canon. I would suggest though that what’s natural to us may or may not have been natural in the fifth century. Still, point taken. Thank you!


  2. The Rufinus Apology citation previously was mentioned in Tregelles’ Printed Text volume (1854: 205, 242-243), along with a mention that the PA passage was marked with asterisks to indicate passing over such in liturgical reading as a likely cause for other transcribers to omit such. See also Chris Keith, Pericope Adulterae, where the same passage is further discussed on 209-210, 253.

    • Thank you, Prof. Robinson. I see the H.E. reference, but not the Apology reference. In Keith’s book, I see Eusebii Historia ecclesiastica a Rufino translate in the Index of Ancient Sources (305), but not the Apology against Jerome. But my reason for running into this was my looking for modern discussion, so please point out any references! (Also, as I noted, the reference is in Vetus Latina.)

  3. Thanks for this, Peter. I enjoy your blog!

    Rufinus’s wording in the famous ‘stone’ quotation by Jesus as well as the one part of his story he claims actually to be citing (inquit) are very close in wording to the Latin versions (though still probably ex memoria). The inquit reference to the departing (omnes discesserunt) isn’t even a part of Didymus’ reference (though of course we can’t rule out that it was in his source text). Some Latin versions have omnes recesserunt (most use the verb exiebant). So at the textual level Rufinus seems clearly to be indicating a reference to PAJohn – as one would expect in his geographical and chronological context.

    Further, “The Jews” is a common way for GJohn to refer to the leaders in Jerusalem so this may have influenced Rufinus’ description of the challengers. And as for the expectation for Jesus to “judge her according to the Law,” that is precisely what the challengers ask of Jesus in PAJohn (but not in Didymus where Jesus himself initiates the encounter and challenges them!): “In the Law Moses commanded” such to be stoned. “What do you say?”. They are challenging him to render a ‘judgment’ expressly “according to the Law” – as Rufinus relates.

    Again, I don’t see any good evidence for supposing Rufinus is citing Didymas’ source but there is an abundance of evidence for concluding that he is citing PAJohn. “The Gospel” means GJohn in this instance.

    The slight variations between Rufinus and PAJohn are likely the result of ‘applying’ a familiar story ex memoria rather than aiming to merely record or copy it.

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