Why does Jerome cite Latin MSS for the pericope adulterae?

In an earlier post I suggested that it would have been unnecessary for Jerome to cite Latin MSS in support of the pericope adulterae (= PA) if he had considered the Greek evidence sufficient. In the comments, Steven Avery raised the excellent point that Jerome may simply have been noting all of the evidence he knew.

Certainly I cannot disagree! But I noted that my suspicions were raised because Jerome normally considers the Greek text to be sufficient in defending a reading. In this connection, I thought it would be useful to compile a list of references Jerome makes to the Greek and Latin NT texts. While the list is by no means exhaustive, it does suggest that in many cases Jerome considers the Greek evidence to stand by itself, while at the same time he tends to disparage the Latin evidence (though certainly there are rhetorical considerations).

So why might Jerome have invoked the Latin evidence for the PA?

In my first post on Jerome and the PA, I noted that, since Jerome’s point rested on the Greek meaning of αναμαρτητος (v. 7), he was eager to present this evidence in the best possible light:

“But if Greek copies had been easy to find, why mention their number or (for that matter) bring up the problem at all? It seems that by calling in the Latin evidence, Jerome anticipates an  objection concerning the scarcity of Greek copies, which suggests that in 415 there were still very few Greek copies of John with the PA, but apparently plenty Latin copies.”

[To see all (currently 5) of my posts on Jerome/Hieronymus and the PA conveniently on a single web page, click here or click the ‘Jerome’ or ‘Hieronymus’ link under the Tags heading on the left sidebar.]


How reliable is Jerome’s testimony for the pericope adulterae?

In an earlier post I pointed to some striking parallels between the Vulgate edition of the pericope adulterae (= PA) and the circumstances of Jerome’s expulsion from Rome, apparently under accusations of sexual impropriety. Considering various anomalies in Jerome’s testimony concerning the PA, I raised the question as to whether Jerome himself may have contributed to its final form.

I had already drafted the above post when last Saturday I attended Amy M. Donaldson’s paper, “‘What Was Spoken through the Prophet Asaph’ (Matt. 13:35): Textual Evidence from Jerome, or Conjectural Emendation by Origen?”, at the Pacific Northwest Regional SBL meeting on the variant “through Asaph” (ασαφ) in Matthew 13:35. [1] Since the reading lacks any surviving continuous manuscript support, the external evidence rests entirely on Jerome’s remarks. [2]

Fortunately, since Jerome comments on the reading on two separate occasions, we are able to compare his respective accounts and assess his reliability. In fact, the results are not favorable to Jerome’s credibility. When he first mentions the reading in his Commentary on Matthew (398), it is still conjecture [3]:

I have read in several manuscripts [Legi in nonnullis codicibus], … that … it is written as ‘through Isaiah the prophet, saying.’ Because the text is not at all found in Isaiah, I think it was later removed by prudent men. In my judgment [Sed mihi uidetur], it was originally published as follows: ‘[in order that what was written] through Asaph the prophet, saying.’ (Comm. Matt 13:35). [4]

Yet just a few years later, in his Homily 11 on Psalm 78 (77 LXX) (401), Jerome confidently asserts that what had formerly been in his judgment “is found in all the ancient copies” (in omnibus ueteribus codicibus). [5] It is unlikely of course that Jerome had discovered any actual MSS in the few years between these remarks. Presumably he would have mentioned such favorable evidence! So we are forced to ask, is Jerome extrapolating on the basis of a self-assured conjecture to evidence that he simply never saw? [6]

Whatever his motives, Jerome’s lack of inhibition in ascribing his personal conjecture to the Greek MS tradition should give us pause in assessing the reliability of his remarks elsewhere. Imagine that Homily 11 had been our only surviving source for the reading ασαφ in Matthew 13:35. We would quite reasonably infer that, had Jerome found this reading in all of his copies, it must have been at least in a great number of Greek copies. Yet we would be utterly mistaken!

Fast-forwarding to the year 415, Jerome asserts that there then existed “many Greek and many Latin codices” with the PA (Pelag. 2.17). But surely Jerome is being somewhat disingenuous in his appeal to “many” Latin copies. After all, this figure included copies of the Vulgate that he had himself revised to include the PA! And why is it necessary to cite Latin evidence at all for a reading that exists in many Greek MSS? Are we to wonder then whether Jerome is extrapolating in this case also to Greek evidence he never saw?

[1] University of Idaho, May 21, 2016.

[2] The evidence is still cited in NA28 and (apparently) UBS5. Jerome’s starting point seems to be Origen’s conjecture.

[3] Date according to Gryson et al., Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques latins de l’antiquité et du haut Moyen Âge (2007) 1:540.

[4] Cited from Dr. Donaldson’s handout, which cites FC 117:160-161;  SC 242:284.

[5] Date according to Gryson et al., 1:545. Cited from Dr. Donaldson’s handout, which cites FC 48:81-82 in modified form and CCSL 78:66-67.

[6] Dr. Donaldson plausibly suggests that Jerome simply assumed that his inference was correct and hence present in the old copies. See also, Amy M. Donaldson, “Explicit References to New Testament Variant Readings among Greek and Latin and Church Fathers.” (PhD Diss.; University of Notre Dame, 2009) 369-372, where she observes, “The homilist therefore assumes that Asaph is the predominant and oldest reading.” (p. 370) “Jerome especially emphasizes that his conjectured original  reading, Asaph, is theologically correct …” (p. 372)

Are there autobiographical elements in Jerome’s pericope adulterae?

In an earlier post I pointed out some anomalies concerning Jerome’s involvement with the pericope adulterae (= PA) as it appears in the Vulgate at John 7:53-8:11:

  • Jerome’s remarks on the PA’s wide attestation come some thirty years after the presentation of the Vulgate gospels
  • Jerome does not cite the Vulgate version of the PA in his later remarks on the PA
  • Jerome’s PA is very different from attested pre-Vulgate Greek forms, such as that of his mentor Didymus or the account in Didascalia Apostolorum
  • Jerome seems to be exaggerating the representation of the PA in Greek manuscripts to make a point against the Pelagians
  • The appearance of the PA in the Vulgate is followed by an explosion of interest in the story within the Latin tradition

Considering the above anomalies and Jerome’s reputation for inventing material when it suited his purposes (Vigil. 3 and see Nautin [1983] on fabricated letter exchanges), the question needs to be asked whether Jerome had a hand in the composition of the final form of the PA. The following parallels between the story as it appears in the Vulgate and Jerome’s own circumstances may be illuminating (apologies for the Victorian English in the NPNF quotes):

  • like the woman in the story, Jerome was accused of sexual misconduct in his capacity as spiritual advisor to a circle of ascetic women in Rome:

It often happened that I found myself surrounded with virgins … Our studies brought about constant intercourse, this soon ripened into intimacy, and this, in turn, produced mutual confidence. … No; my sex is my one crime, and even on this score I am not assailed, save when there is a talk of Paula going to Jerusalem. … Men call me a mischief-maker … There hath no temptation taken me but such as is common to man. … Men have laid to my charge a crime of which I am not guilty [i.e. incontinence] (Epist. 45.2,6 “To Asella”; trans. NPNF 2.6, 59, 60)

  • as the accused woman was brought before the Pharisees, so Jerome was called before a tribunal of Roman clerics (whom he calls “Pharisees” elsewhere) to answer charges of sexual misconduct:

As to what judgment was formed of me at Rome, or what was written afterwards, you are quite welcome to speak out, especially since you have writings to trust to; for I am not to be tried by your words … but by the documents of the church. (Ruf. 3.22; trans. NPNF 2.3, 530)

  • given the PA’s interest in hypocrisy, it is telling that Jerome painted his accusers as hypocrites, referring to the tribunal as a “senate of Pharisees” (Pharisaeorum … senatus) (preface to Did. Spir.)
  • Jerome’s attachment to Paula, whose plans to follow Jerome to Palestine initiated rumors of an indiscretion, placed him in a particularly sympathetic position towards the woman accused of adultery:

Of all the ladies in Rome but one had power to subdue me, and that one was Paula. … The only woman who took my fancy was one whom I had not so much as seen at table. But when I began to revere, respect, and venerate her as her conspicuous chastity deserved, all my former virtues forsook me on the spot. (Epist. 45.3 “To Asella”)

  • concerning Jesus’ writing on the ground, we should only note that the written word was Jerome’s own weapon of choice against those he considered his hypocritical accusers

Why does Jerome not cite the Vulgate of the Pericope adulterae?

Jerome’s remarks on the story of the adulterous woman in his tract Against the Pelagians (415) are sometimes cited as evidence for its existence at the time of his revision of the gospels in 384. In an earlier post though, I pointed out that Against the Pelagians was written some thirty years after the Vulgate gospels and hence probably cannot be considered evidence for the state of the text in the early 380’s, at the time of Jerome’s Vulgate project.

The question remains of course whether Jerome was looking back to this earlier time. In light of this possibility, it is noteworthy that Jerome does not cite the Vulgate text in his remarks to the Pelagians. Consider:

Against the Pelagians (CCSL 80) Vulgate (R. Weber)
At Iesus inclinus digito scribebat in terra (v. 6)

Qui sine peccato est uestrum, primus mittat super eam lapidem (v. 7)

Vbi sunt? Nemo te condemnauit? Quae ait: Nullus, Domine. Responditque ei Iesus: neque ego te condemno. Vade, et amodo noli peccare. (vv. 10-11)

Iesus autem inclinans se deorsum digito scribebat in terra (v. 6)

qui sine peccato est vestrum primus in illam lapidem mittat (v. 7)

ubi sunt nemo te condemnavit quae dixit nemo Domine dixit autem Iesus nec ego te condemnabo vade et amplius iam noli peccare (vv. 10-11)

Clearly Jerome’s three citations of the pericope adulterae in Adversus Pelagianos attest some significant discrepancies in comparison with the Vulgate. The differences in vv. 10-11 seem hardest to explain. After all, it seems odd that Jerome would default to a different form of the woman’s two-word response, “No one, Lord,” or the memorable pronouncement, “Neither do I condemn you,” even if he were paraphrasing or citing from memory.

Jerome and the Pericope adulterae

Jerome’s remarks on the story of the adulterous woman in Adversus Pelagianos (415) are sometimes taken as a virtual textual commentary on his Old Latin revision completed more than three decades earlier (384):

In Euangelio secundum Iohannem in multis et Graecis et Latinis codicibus inuenitur de adultera muliere, quae accusata est apud Dominum. (Jerome, Adversus Pelagianos 2.17)

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)

From these remarks, it is sometimes assumed that at the time he revised the text of John in the early 380’s, Jerome already had at his disposal many Greek and many Latin manuscripts both with and without the pericope adulterae (= PA). But this assumption overlooks a gap of over thirty years between Jerome’s dispute with the Pelagians in 415 and his Vulgate revision of the gospels in 384. In short, it is questionable that Jerome’s remarks in Adversus Pelagianos can be cited (as they often are) as evidence that the PA was represented in many Greek and many Latin copies of John before its appearance in the Vulgate.

But even in 415, it is not easy to rule out a degree of exaggeration on Jerome’s part. Certainly, given the polemical context, Jerome has every reason to present the Greek evidence in the most favorable light. After all, his argument from the Greek meaning of αναμαρτητος (v. 7) as “without sin” rests somewhat precariously (it would seem) on the existence of Greek copies. But if Greek copies had been easy to find, why mention their number or (for that matter) bring up the problem at all? It seems that by calling in the Latin evidence, Jerome anticipates an  objection concerning the scarcity of Greek copies, which suggests that in 415 there were still very few Greek copies of John with the PA, but apparently plenty of Latin copies.

Stepping back a bit, there is a disconcerting aspect to Jerome’s appeal to the Latin tradition given his own contribution to the dissemination of the PA in Latin. By all appearances, the Vulgate contributed immensely to the story’s popularity. We must wonder at the sudden explosion of interest in the PA in the Latin tradition after its first appearance in the Vulgate. (Consider, for example, Ambrose’s reference in Epistle 68 from 385-387, Rufinus’ apparent reinterpretation of Papias through the PA from 401-402, and Augustine’s two references from after 399. The other allusions in Latin seem to follow this pattern as well.)

On the other hand, it is odd that besides Jerome’s citation of a single Greek word, the only Greek evidence occurs in a manuscript that also contains a Latin column (Codex Bezae), while additional allusions to the PA continue in Latin writers for several centuries before the first surviving reference in a Greek writer. Even in the fifth century then, we still struggle to find the pericope standing as an independent Greek tradition at its canonical position in the Vulgate, leading us to wonder what Greek evidence Jerome might have found in the early 380’s outside of extra-biblical traditions. Why does Jerome’s mentor Didymus still know a very different form of PA (for all its impressive similarity)? Why is he still unwilling or unable to identify which gospel it came from?

Of course, this may all be a coincidence. But it leaves open a number of unanswered questions concerning Jerome’s involvement in establishing the PA in its “canonical” position between John 7:52 and 8:12.