The Vulgate — Jerome’s idea?

For much of what we believe we know about the origins of Jerome’s revision of the Latin Bible, Jerome himself is our only source.1 To read Jerome’s version of events, we come away with the picture of a persecuted scholar obediently fulfilling a commission from Rome to restore the variant-ridden texts of the Latin church, while virtually directing the course of the Latin version from a cell in Bethlehem. From his self-portrait as innocent victim of unwarranted attacks to his complaints about the ignorant masses incapable of appreciating his vision of the authority of the Greek and Hebrew versions, Jerome’s rhetoric shines when polishing his own literary image.

To judge the effectiveness of Jerome’s rhetoric, we might consider B. M. Metzer’s account of the Vulgate’s origins:

“… various people, at various times and in various places, with varying degrees of success, had translated various parts of the Bible into Latin. The result was chaos. The different versions had become so mixed and corrupt that no two manuscripts agreed. Accordingly Pope Damasus (366–84) undertook to remedy this intolerable situation, and the scholar to whom he entrusted the arduous task was the great biblical scholar of the ancient Latin Church, Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus, known to us today as St. Jerome.”2

It is evident that Metzger essentially accepts Jerome’s version of events, reciting Jerome’s Preface with scarcely a hint about the potential dangers of such a one-sided account (or Jerome’s tendency to produce such accounts):

“Although we do not have the original request of the scholarly Damasus … we can judge from Jerome’s Preface to his revision of the four Gospels … how he regarded the Pope’s mandate. … There were two reasons … which prompted Jerome to incur such an amount of opprobrium [i.e. for altering the biblical text]. The first reason, as he goes on to say in the Preface, was the command laid upon him by Damasus, the supreme pontiff. The second was the shocking diversity among the Old Latin manuscripts.”3

Of course, this is all Jerome’s story: the Old Latin version in hopeless disarray, a hapless church unsuccessfully striving to lift itself above the chaos, a visionary pope benevolently assessing the situation and appointing for the Herculean task a consummate scholar able to accomplish what no one else could, namely, Jerome himself. We find here no real attempt to probe Jerome’s account, whether of Damasus’s commission, Jerome’s obedience to it, or the persecution he accepts for his obedience. But given Jerome’s pattern of self-promotion and exaggeration in reporting events concerning his own personal narrative, such an approach is not without risk in attempting to acquire an accurate assessment of Jerome’s place in textual history.

The Importance of Rufinus’s Account of Jerome

So we are relieved to find in Rufinus’s Apology against Jerome a voice that for once challenges Jerome’s own carefully-crafted and closely-controlled literary self-portrayal. Rufinus’s characterization of Jerome is nearly the opposite of his own. We hear of Jerome’s meanness, pettiness, fickleness, conniving, perjury, deception, self-delusion, and willingness to preserve his literary reputation at virtually any cost.

We cannot forget of course that Rufinus was himself in conflict with Jerome at this time. Moreover, Jerome is able to defend himself on certain points in his own counter Apology against Rufinus. Yet we get the sense that Rufinus restrains himself from revealing all that he could:

“for God is my witness how truly I can say that I have kept silence on many more points than I have brought forward.” (Against Jerome 2.44; NPNF 2.3, 481)

According to Rufinus, he has spared Jerome a humiliating exposure, just has David spared Saul:

“Let us not follow his example [Jerome’s], but rather that of the patriarch David, who, when he had surprised his enemy Saul in the cave and might have slain him, refused to do so, but spared him. This man [Jerome] knows well how often I have done the same by him, both in word and deed; and if he does not choose to confess it, he has it fixed at least in his mind and conscience.” (Against Jerome 1.31; NPNF 2.3, 452)

Rufinus refers to incriminating letters in his possession:

“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; and therefore I will corroborate what I say by other proofs similar to it.” (Against Jerome 2.23; NPNF 2.3, 470)

Of course, this evidence of restraint only serves to enhance Rufinus’s credibility.

Rufinus on Jerome’s Commission … or Lack Thereof

But one unexpected revelation of the Apology is Rufinus’s apparent belief that the Vulgate, at least as conceived by Jerome, was entirely Jerome’s idea. Rufinus (like Augustine) is especially concerned with Jerome’s preference for the Hebrew scriptures over the LXX:

“But this emendation of the Seventy, what are we to think of it? … This has been the present which you have made us with your excess of wisdom, that we are all judged even by the heathen as lacking in wisdom [for changing the basis of the text].” (Against Jerome 2.35; NPNF 2.3, 476)

Rufinus echoes the sentiments of other writers (such as Augustine) with facetious disbelief, referring to Jerome as a self-appointed “legislator” of the text, acting on his own initiative:

“When the world has grown old and all things are hastening to their end, let us change the inscriptions upon the tombs of the ancients, so that it may be known by those who had read the story otherwise, that it was not a gourd but an ivy plant under whose shade Jonah rested; and that, when our legislator [Jerome] pleases, it will no longer be the shade of ivy but of some other plant.” (Against Jerome 2.35; NPNF 2.3, 476.) 4

Significantly, Rufinus sees Jerome as challenging the authority on which the text stands from that of the apostles to that of his own critical judgment:

“And what are we to do when we are told that the books which bear the names of the Hebrew Prophets and lawgivers are to be had from you in a truer form than that which was approved by the Apostles?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475, italics mine)

“he [Jerome] has altered the sacred books which the Apostles had committed to the churches as the trustworthy deposit of the Holy Spirit” (Against Jerome 2.43; NPNF 2.3, 480, italics mine)

 “… to pervert the law itself and make it different from that which the Apostles handed down to us,—how many times over must this be pronounced worthy of condemnation?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475, italics mine)

“Who but you would have laid hands upon the divine gift and the inheritance of the Apostles?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475, italics mine)

This is no abstract charge. Of course, the apostles were no longer present in person. But the Roman see evidently understood itself to be exercising the same authority. At the Roman synod of 378, during Damasus’s reign, we encounter the first reference to Rome as an apostolic see.5 From a vantage point in Rome, Ambrosiaster notes that

“the succession is preserved beginning with the apostle Peter and handed down to the present time by the succession of bishops” (Quaest. 110.7)6

Meanwhile an inscription on the old Vatican baptistery, ascribed to Damasus, attributes the project vicariously to Peter, head of the apostles:

“Not by human power or art, … but with the help of Peter, pre-eminent [among the apostles], to whom was handed over the very door of heaven, I, Damasus, Bishop of Christ, built this. 7

So Rufinus’s charge that Jerome has undermined the authority of the apostolic text comes close to a denial that he is presently acting on behalf of a pope who claimed to possess apostolic authority.

While Rufinus focuses on the Hebrew translation as in his view the most egregious example of Jerome’s pretension to authority, he also cites Jerome’s Preface to the Four Gospels, suggesting that his criticisms are not limited to the Old Testament translation, but to a certain extent apply to the entire revision:

“To the daring temerity of this act we may much more justly apply your words: ‘Which of all the wise and holy men who have gone before you has dared to put his hand to that work?’ [citing the Preface]” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475)

According to Rufinus, it is Jerome’s “style” to make unilateral judgments according to his “own arrogant authority” on which texts are suitable for the larger church:

“with that ‘censor’s rod’ of yours, and by your own arrogant authority, you make your decrees in this style: ‘Let this book be cast out of the libraries, let that book be retained; … Let this one be counted as Catholic …” (Against Jerome 2.30; NPNF 2.3, 474, italics mine)

Rufinus then states explicitly what he has previously only suggested, namely, that Jerome has no support from any authority in Rome:

“This action [translating the OT] is yours, my brother, yours alone. It is clear that no one in the church has been your companion or confederate in it …” (Against Jerome 2.37; NPNF 2.3, 477)

So Rufinus is apparently convinced that the Vulgate — at least in the Old Testament and apparently in the gospels as well — is solely Jerome’s idea. Rufinus mentions nothing of the commission by the pope that Jerome mentions in the Preface, of which he presumably must have known had it existed. It is clear then that, in Rufinus’s view, Jerome never had the support of any ecclesiastical authority.

How then did the Vulgate prevail? In a fascinating picture, Rufinus depicts Jerome as essentially the director of a scriptorium of his own works, who floods the churches with unsolicited copies of his revision:8

“But how 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? are they to be treated as human or divine?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475)

So according to Rufinus, Jerome is acting entirely on his own initiative with no commission from Rome, while propagating the results by effectively “spamming” the churches and monasteries, cities and walled towns with unsolicited copies of his work.

From the point of view of the history of the text, we must be wary then of accepting Jerome’s claims at face value, especially when contradicted by a contemporary, such as Rufinus, who appears to have known Jerome personally as well as anyone else. In our inquiry concerning the history of the text, we simply cannot afford to accept Jerome’s word as definitive, especially when he is our only source.

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.


Why does Augustine urge correctors to consult Greek texts … if necessary?

In my previous post, I pointed to the disparity between the Latin and Greek traditions in their respective capacities to account economically for Bezae’s distinctive Latin parallels in the gospels. Since there is no evidence that much of Bezae’s Latin-affiliated variation ever existed in the Greek tradition, while strong parallels exist in Latin, it seems the simpler hypothesis would be that Bezae’s distinctive readings originated in the Latin tradition. Yet given that the Greek tradition is the ultimate source of the Latin version, surely we need good reason to conjecture that a Greek text form may be influenced by readings in the secondary Latin tradition.

One fundamental requirement is a historical context in which the natural flow of influence from Greek to Latin might be reversed, for example, where it was believed that the Latin tradition was more pure or reliable than the Greek. In such a context, we have a ready motive for the alteration of Greek texts to a Latin model.

As I have noted elsewhere, we do find such a belief expressed by Ambrosiaster (Com. Rom. 5.14), who argues that the contemporary Latin tradition is more pure than any contemporary Greek witnesses, which have passed through the hands of recent (Arian) heretics and controversialists, who are willing to change the text to win an argument. While Ambrosiaster is explicit that the ancient Greek tradition is ultimately authoritative, he believes it is simply no longer accessible, at least in Greek. He argues rather that the antiquity of the Latin tradition and its relative isolation from recent Arian dominance support its purity in relation to the contemporary Greek tradition. As for diversity within the Latin tradition, Ambrosiaster believes that the true text is found in the ancient Latin writers, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Victorinus, essentially in the so-called “African” tradition.

But Ambrosiaster is not our only evidence of partiality to the Latin tradition. In De doctrina christiana (396–397), Augustine urges his readers three times in one paragraph to correct Latin texts to the Greek version. He begins by insisting:

“to correct the Latin we must use the Greek versions.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542)

So like Ambrosiaster, Augustine affirms the ultimate authority of the Greek tradition. But while Augustine does not insist that the Latin tradition is more pure than the Greek, it is apparent that some of his readers may take Ambrosiaster’s view. Why else would Augustine insist that Latin texts are to be corrected to the Greek unless there were some who were correcting Latin texts to other Latin texts? While it is possible that (rather than from conviction) some of these correctors simply did not know Greek well enough to use the Greek text, Augustine’s exhortation implies that at least some of these correctors were capable of using Greek, but still deferred to the Latin. For some of Augustine’s readers, the authority of the Greek tradition was apparently not taken for granted.

But there is a certain ambivalence to the Greek tradition on Augustine’s part as well. Referring to Old Testament translations, Augustine qualifies his exhortation with a conditional expression, urging correctors to appeal to Greek texts “if necessary” (si necesse fuerit):

“The Latin texts, therefore, of the Old Testament are, as I was about to say, to be corrected if necessary by the authority of the Greeks” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542, italics mine)1

Of course, Augustine may simply want to acknowledge that not every text requires correction. But is that not obvious? It seems the qualification expresses a deeper hesitation. Perhaps we have here a hint of ambivalence on Augustine’s part towards altering the Latin text. Augustine affirms the final authority of the Greek tradition in principle, but at the same time wants to limit correction to cases that are specifically necessary. Augustine refers to the New Testament with similar qualifications:

“again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek, especially those that are found in the churches of greater learning and research.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 543, italics mine)2

With the conditional expression, “if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts” (si quid in Latinis varietatibus titubat), Augustine suggests that perplexity does not necessarily result when encountering the diversity of the Latin tradition. But if such perplexity is avoidable, as Augustine suggests, there is then no need to yield to the Greek.

But how are Latin correctors to judge that a correction is necessary without consulting a Greek text? How are they to avoid perplexity when confronted with multiple Latin text forms?

In fact, Augustine has just affirmed the superiority of what he calls the “Italian” (Latin) translation:3

“among translations themselves the Italian (Itala) is to be preferred to the others, for it keeps closer to the words without prejudice to clearness of expression.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542)

According to Augustine, this Italian translation is more literal (“keeps closer to the words”) and less prone to smoothing over potential difficulties (“without prejudice to clearness of expression”). While Ambrosiaster had only recently appealed to the authority of the “African” tradition on the basis of its presumed antiquity, Augustine appeals to the “Italian” translation on the basis of its apparent literalness.

So it appears there were some in the Latin West at the turn of the fifth century, Augustine included, who considered a particular Latin text form to be authoritative within the Latin tradition. We wonder then how a bilingual Latin corrector, convinced of the superiority of a particular Latin tradition, might have responded to a Greek text that diverged in a substantial way from this tradition? Would such a corrector necessarily yield to the Greek text as a representative of the larger Greek tradition? If this corrector believed his Latin version to be a superior representation of the initial Greek, it no longer seems so implausible that a Greek text might be corrected to a Latin text form, even in cases where the Latin text form in fact had little or no Greek support.

How old are the Old Latin gospels?

In the second edition of his Introduction and Appendix (1896), B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) suggested a novel criterion to assess so-called external evidence, namely, that the convergence of the Old Latin manuscript 1 (k) with the recently-discovered Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest (sys) could signal a text form of greater antiquity than the combined witness of Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus:

“The discovery of the Sinaitic MS of the Old Syriac raises the question whether the combination of the oldest types of the Syriac and Latin texts can outweigh the combination of the primary Greek texts. A careful examination of the passages in which syr.sin and k are arrayed against אB would point to the conclusion.”1

Christened a “methodological formula” by A. Vööbus and, rather dramatically, a “deathbed confession” by W. L. Petersen, Westcott’s “criterion” gained some acceptance, judging from the range of scholars who cited it.2 Yet we wonder whether — with F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) no longer in the picture as a voice of restraint — Westcott’s remarks reflect a degree of sensationalism following Agnes Lewis’s recent discovery of the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest in 1892.

No doubt a certain mystique surrounds the early versions. This aura of antiquity can be felt in their weighty titles, Vetus Latina and Vetus Syra. It is only enhanced by the abundance of free text forms they attest, thought to evoke the earliest stages of the New Testament text. Indeed, the Latin and Syriac versions are cited in support of a variety of seemingly ancient traditions, from the pericope adulterae to reports of a light or fire on the Jordan to a range of other traditions. Of course, since the attesting manuscripts tend to be much later than the period of interest, it is routinely noted that the dates of manuscripts matter less than the dates of the texts they contain, which of course may be several centuries older.

But how certain can we be that these particular texts as found in the Old Latin and Old Syriac gospels are very much older than their manuscripts? How reliable is the impression of age of their text forms? Can they somehow transport us behind the Greek tradition?

Examining the evidence, it is difficult to see how. Bobbiensis’s text likely dates to a generation or so before Cyprian, perhaps to the 230’s, as Tertullian betrays no knowledge of it.3 The Sinaitic Syriac text is difficult to date, but while perhaps influenced by earlier material seems itself not much earlier than the fourth century — not much earlier indeed than the Greek witnesses it is said possibly to preempt.4 And turning to the manuscripts themselves, we find in the case of the Old Latin that they date mainly to the fifth century:5

MS/Nr Name Contents Date Place
e 2 Palatinus Gospels V Italy
b 4 Veronensis Gospels Late V Italy
d 5 Bezae Cantabrigiensis Gospels,Acts c. 400 Berytus
ff2 8 Corbiensis Gospels V Italy
h 12 Claromontanus Matthew Late V Italy
n 16 Sangallense Gospels V Italy
i 17 Vindobonensis Luke,Mark Late V Italy
t 19 Bernense Mark Late V Italy (?)

Now at the end of the fourth century, the diversity of the Old Latin tradition is mentioned by more than one writer. Jerome writes in the 380’s:

“the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved to be faulty by the variations which all of them exhibit.”6

And again:

“We must confess that as we have it in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead [i.e. the Greek].”7

Writing about a decade later in 397, Augustine makes a similar observation, also conceding the priority of the Greek:

“As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek.”8

Augustine tries hard to cast these divergent translations in a positive light:

“the great number of the translators proves a very great assistance, if they are examined and discussed with a careful comparison of their texts.”9

But while Jerome was apparently content to make his own revisions (at least in the gospels), Augustine urges anyone with the requisite skills to correct texts:

“For those who are anxious to know, the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected.”10

So as the fourth century drew to a close, we find a context in which various correctors are at work on the Old Latin texts, attempting to correct them to a Greek model.

Yet while Augustine and Jerome could at least agree that Latin texts should be corrected to the Greek, their opinion was by no means the consensus view. Ambrosiaster argues the contrarian position that it is rather the Old Latin that preserves the most ancient available text form, because, as he argues, it agrees with the earliest Christian writers in the Latin tradition:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices, which the innocence of former times has safeguarded and now certifies to us without corruption. … For the text retained today in the Latin codices is found the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Cyprian.”11

The picture emerges then of a tradition still in flux at the turn of the fifth century, whose text had lost the confidence of its readers, who at the same time sought to affirm its value through their corrections. But with no common criteria for “correcting” the text, the instability of the tradition as a whole could only have been increasing at this time. Given that most of our best witnesses to this tradition date from after this period of instability, we are left wondering how we are to distinguish between ancient traditions and recent corrections. But if this is so, how can these traditions offer us any useful glimpse behind the Greek text?

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.

Did Ambrose use an Old Latin or Vulgate text in the pericope adulterae?

This post responds to the helpful comments I have received concerning my suggestion that Jerome might be the interpolator of the pericope adulterae (= PA) in John. Of course, any suggestion of this kind must ultimately be evaluated in light of the textual evidence.

Ambrose’s witness to the PA turns out to be highly significant because it dates to the same decade that Jerome released the Vulgate gospels, the first indirect witness to the PA in John. The question we must ask is whether Ambrose depended on a newly-minted Vulgate text or an existing Old Latin text. If Ambrose relied on a new Vulgate text, it is evident either that he cited rather freely or relied on a different edition — a possibility suggested by Jerome’s own citations of the PA, which differ from the standard Vulgate form. On the other hand, if Ambrose relied on an Old Latin text, it is not like any Old Latin text we have, though it shares some distinctive readings with the Old Latin witnesses.

The following table shows Ambrose’s agreements with the Old Latin and Vulgate texts in the pericope adulterae. Text shared with the Vulgate is green (104 units), text shared with at least one Old Latin witness is yellow (34 units), and text unique to Ambrose is red (71 units).1

MS 2 MS 5 MS 8 MS 14 Vulgate Jerome, Pelagius Ambrose, Epist 68 Ambrose, Epist 50 Ambrose, Misc 1 Ambrose, Misc 2
John 8:4
et offerentes ergo eam (+ et W, + publice M)
dixerunt dicunt dixerunt dixerunt dixerunt dixerunt
illi illi ihm ei ei
magister magister magister [m]agister magister
haec haec haec haec haec hanc
mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier mulierem
modo modo
depraehensa conpraehensa deprehensa depraehensa deprehensa inuenimus
est est est est est
sponte palam publice
in in [in] in
moecata adulterio moecatione adulterio adulterio moechantem
John 8:5
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68
in in in
lege moyses intellege lege lege
autem autem autem autem autem scriptum est enim (autem r)
nobis in in
lege lege
moyses moyses Moses Moysi (Moysis m)
mandauit praecepit precepit mandauit mandavit
nobis [n]obis nobis
huiusmodi tales qui huiusmodi huiusmodi omnem moecham
lapidare lapidare lapidetur lapidare lapidare lapidari
tu tu tu tu tu tu
ergo autem nunc autem autem ergo uero
quid quid quid quid quid quid (qui E*)
dicis dicis dicis di[ci]s dicis dicis
de de
ea ea
John 8:6
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM Iob AM De spiritu
hoc haec hoc haec quae hoc hoc
enim autem autem cum igitur
dicebant dicebant dicebant dicebant dicerent
temptantes temptantes temptantes temptantes
illum eum eum eum
ut ut ut ut
haberent haberent [pos]sent possent
quomodo causam
eum eum
unde cum Iudaei
accusarent adcusandi accussare accusare accusarent
eum eum adulteram
praeuidens digito mystice etiam
dominus dominus dominus
ihs ihs ihs ihs Iesus at Iesus Iesus Iesus Iesus Iesus
autem autem autem autem autem
inclinato inclinatus inclinato inclinans inclinans inclinans inclinato inclinato inclinato
[… se
capite capite d]eorsum deorsum capite capite capite
digito digito digito digito digito digito digito digito
supra suo suo
scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat
in in in in in in in in in
terram terram terra terra terra terra (terram Pl) terra terra terra
cum a Iudaeis adultera esset oblata
John 8:7
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM David
cum cum cum cu[m cum cum
ergo autem autem aute]m autem
perseuerarent inmanerent interrogarent perseuerarent perseverarent exspectarent
interrogantes interrogantes expectantes interrogantes interrogantes ut audirent
eum eum eum eum eum
quid […]
adlebauit erexit erexit erexit erigens
capud caput
se se se se
et et et et et
dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit iterum erigit quasi dicturus sententiam et ait
illis illis eis eis eis
quis quis quisque qui qui qui qui qui qui
uestrum est uestrum
sine sine sine sine sine sine sine sine sine
peccato peccato delicto peccato peccato peccato peccato peccato peccato
est est es[t est est est est est, inquit,
ipse uestrum …] vestrum uestrum (+ uestrum F P1 al., ~ est sine peccato M)
prior prior prior primus primus prior prior prior
super super in in
illam eam eam [… illam
iniciat mittat mittat
super eam
lapidem lapidem lapidem lap]ide[m] lapidem lapidem lapidet lapidet lapidet
iactet mit[tat] mittat eam eam (lapidem in illam mittat F) eam
John 8:8
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50
et et et […] et et
iterum iterum iterum iterum iterum
inclinato inclinatus inclinas inclinans inclinato
capite se capite
digito digito
hoc autem dixit et
scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat scribebat
in in in in in
terra terram terra terra (terram Pa*) terra
John 8:9
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50
illi unusquisque illi
autem autem igitur
cum iudaeorum cum
audissent audissent audientes audientes audientes (+ autem P, audiens M*)
autem autem
hoc uerbum
exierunt foras
unus paulatim […] unus unus (unum M) illi
post secedebant post post post
unum singuli unum unum unum
exiebant exiebant exiebant exiebant exire coeperunt
incipientes incipientes adcipientes incipientes incipientes incipientes incipientes (insipientes M)
a a a a a a
senioribus presbyteris senioribus […]bus senioribus senioribus senioribus
et sedebant cogitantes de se uel quod ipsi plura haberent crimina qui diu uixerant uel qui priores (priorem B* F L P) uim intellexerunt sententiae quasi prudentiores
omnes omnes
exire recesserunt recedentibus ergo illis
et et et et et et
relictus remansit relictus remansit remansit remansit remansit remansit
est est
ihs ihs
solus solus solus solus solus solus solus
ihs Iesus Iesus
et et et et et cum et
mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier mulier
in in in in in in
medio medio medio me[dio] medio medio
cum cui
esset erat stans stans locutus est Iesus stans
John 8:10
2 5 8 14 Vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50
cum cumque et
adleuasset erigens erexisset erigens erigens eleuans eleuans
autem autem autem autem autem
capud se se se se caput caput
ihs ihs ihs ihs Iesus Iesus
dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit
ad ad
ei eam ei ei
mulier mulieri mulier mulier mulier mulieri (mulier B) mulierem
ubi ubi ubi […] ubi ubi ubi ubi
sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt sunt
qui qui qui qui
te te te te
perduxerunt accussabant accusabant accusabant
nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo
te te te te te te te te
condemnauit lapidauit condem[na]uit condemnavit condemnauit lapidauit (condemnauit r) lapidauit (condemnauit HSr)
John 8:11
2 5 8 14 vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM Ep 64 AM David
et et et et
illa illa illa illa illa
quae quae quae
dixit dixit dixit dixit ait respondit respondit
nemo nemo nemo nemo nemo nullus nemo nemo
dne dme dne dne Domine domine domine
dixit dixit dixit dixit dixit responditque et ait dicit ait
autem autem autem autem
ei ei ad illam ei
ihs ihs i[hs] Iesus Iesus Iesus Iesus
ad illam
nec nec nec nec nec neque nec nec
ego ego ego ego ego ego ego ego
te te te te te te te te (x F)
iudico condemno damnabo condemnabo condemnabo condemno damnabo (condemnabo EFHMOSWd) damnabo (damno r, condemnabo cett.)
i uade uade uade vade uade uade uade uade uade
et et et et et et et et
ex ex ex post
amplius hoc hoc ho[c] amplius amodo amodo amodo amodo haec
uide uide (x B, ~ uide amodo m) uide uide
iam iam iam iam
noli noli noli noli noli noli ne (nec F) ne ne ne
peccare peccare peccare peccare peccare peccare pecces pecces pecces pecces
2 5 8 14 vg HI Pel AM Ep 68 AM Ep 50 AM Ep 64 AM David

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.