Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Jerome and Textual Criticism

I was fascinated a while back when I came across a blog posting where the author claimed that Jerome had testified to the authenticity of the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7b-8). This claim was interesting to me on many levels. First, if true, it would be a surprising piece of evidence that truly ought to be considered as part of an overall “reasoned eclecticism” evaluation of this variant reading. Second, those who are promoting this evidence normally take a dim view of such text critical methodology, preferring instead to take a “faith-based” approach that ignores the massive evidence that exists against the authenticity of the Comma. Thirdly, it reminded me of a paper I wrote for a seminary class on the Majority Text, where in the course of research I came across several other quotes by Jerome that referred to the textual state of affairs during his day. I want to mention something about those but first let's take a closer look at this particular claim concerning Jerome.

Jerome’s testimony for the Comma is said to come from the preface for the canonical epistles as found in Codex Fuldensis, an early Latin version of the New Testament. Helpfully, Google has the full text of this document available online, so you can read the preface for yourself (see page 399), that is if you can read Latin. The key portion reads in English as follows:

“Just as these are properly understood and so translated faithfully by interpreters into Latin without leaving ambiguity for the readers nor [allowing] the variety of genres to conflict, especially in that text where we read the unity of the trinity is placed in the first letter of John, where much error has occurred at the hands of unfaithful translators contrary to the truth of faith, who have kept just the three words water, blood and spirit in this edition omitting mention of Father, Word and Spirit in which especially the catholic faith is strengthened and the unity of substance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is attested.”
The book that contains this preface was published in MDCCCLXVIII, or 1868, so it is not certain when the preface was actually written but it seems clear to me that it wasn't written by Jerome. The author appears to reference Jerome as one of the “unfaithful translators [who] contrary to the truth of faith have kept just the three words water, blood and spirit in this edition omitting mention of Father, Word and Spirit.” Sure enough, if you examine the text of this Codex Fuldensis, it does not include the Comma. Check it out yourself -- On page 426, verse 7 reads, “quia tres sunt qui testimonium dant” (for there are three that bear record) and then the text skips directly to verse 8, omitting the Comma. So, the way I read this preface is that someone is complaining about Jerome's work regarding the Comma. Obviously, the author of the preface believes in the authenticity of the Comma, but the author does appear to be Jerome and it is not clear to me how ancient this evidence is.

Now, while this particular data point is suspect, there are a significant number of actual quotations by Jerome that do speak to the state of the textual corpus during his day. The follow data comes from a chapter entitled, St Jerome's explicit references to variant reading in manuscripts of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger in Text and Interpretation. Metzger lists 27 such references. I'd like to highlight just a few of the more interesting ones:

1. Regarding the longer ending of Mark, he says that it “is met with in only a few copies of the Gospel – almost all the codices of Greece being without this passage...” What is significant here is that what is the majority text today was evidently not the majority text in Jerome's day.

2. Another example of this phenomenon is Matt 5:22, where the majority of extant texts today include “without a cause” but in Jerome's day, he could write, “most of the ancient copies do not have the qualification without a cause.”

3. In regard to the Pericope of Adultery (John 7:53-8:11), he states that the pericope “is found in many of both the Greek as well as the Latin copies of the Gospel according to John.” Here he doesn't say “most” but “many.” So, while he certainly knew of this variant reading, if you compare this wording to what he said about the longer ending of Mark, it would seem to indicate that he found more evidence for the pericope than the longer ending. That is consistant with the fact that the periocpe occurs in the Vulgate. However, today, I think most text critics, while ultimately rejecting both, would say that the longer ending of Mark has much more support for authenticity than does the pericope.

It is fascinating to read what Jerome says. I don't know exactly how much stock we can put into his observations, as his access to manuscripts may have been limited or incomplete. Nevertheless, it is still worth something, as a consideration from a text critic who would have been motivated to be as accurate as possible. At the very least I think it demonstrates how slippery ideas like “majority” really are when dealing with this subject.

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