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5. Jerome: The Bible and its early translation

The Bible in Translation

After returning from the Babylonian exile in the 5th century BC many Jews no longer spoke or understood Hebrew. The Hebrew Scriptures needed translation and interpretation (Ez. 8:8). To facilitate this the OT was translated in Aramaic. This is the beginning of the Bible in translation.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC Greek language and culture dominated the Ancient Near East. According to Philo, Josephus, the Letter of Aristeas, and rabbinic sources, King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–247 bc) assembled 70 (or 72) Jewish translators to render the Law of Moses into Greek to add to the great library of Alexandria. In the following century the rest of the OT was translated into Greek. This translation is referred to as the Septuagint (Lxx)

LXX and the NT

When the NT quotes the OT, it typically quotes the LXX. However, there are times when NT authors use their own direct translation from the Hebrew that differs from the LXX. For example in Hosea 11:1 the Hebrew text can be translated as “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” But the LXX would translate as “Because Israel was an infant, and I loved him, and out of Egypt I called back his children.” In Matthew 2:15 which cites Hosea 1:11 we read “Out of Egypt I called my son.” The evangelist chooses to cite a translation that closer reflects the Hebrew than the popular Greek translation,

The Old Latin Versions

Use of Latin in Rome’s Christian churches was gradual as the Roman church was predominantly Greek speaking in the early centuries of the church. Pope Victor (c.190), a N. African by birth, was the first to write Latin theology (Jer. De vir Illus. 34, 53). Even with the rise of Latin speaking Christian theologians many Christians in Rome still preferred Greek liturgical prayers and the creed in Greek, because it sounded holy (Ambrosiaster, Cor. 1,14, 14; 1,14,19).

The home of the Latin Bible was not Rome but North Africa. In N Africa there were probably Latin translations of the NT by end of 2nd century. In 180 the Scillitan Martyrs (in Numidia) were beheaded for possessing copies of the Latin Scriptures. These Old Latin versions translated the LXX into Latin for the OT not the Hebrew.

Jerome (347-420)

Jerome was born in Stridon (Croatia? Slovenia? Bosnia?) in 347. He was a gifted student and studied in Rome where he grew to love pagan Latin literature, especially Cicero. After his conversion to Christianity in Rome he spent several years in Syria and Constantinople where he learnt Greek. He returned to Rome after the second ecumenical council of 380 and served under Pope Damasus.

The need to revise the Bible

The Old Latin versions of the Bible were many and of dubious quality. Augustine complained of the Old Latin translators, “For in the early days of the faith every man who happened to get his hands upon a Greek manuscript, and who thought he had any knowledge, were it ever so little, of the two languages, ventured upon the work of translation.” (De doctr. christ. 2.16.23). “For the translations of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators are out of all number. (Aug., De doctr. christ. 2:16) “For the variations found in the different codices of the Latin text are intolerably numerous” (Aug, Ep. 71.4.6).

Pope Damasus, c. A.D. 383 commissioned Jerome to revise the Latin Gospels. “The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all” (NPNF2 6: 487–488). Jerome defended the need for a revision because of “readings at variance with the early copies cannot be right. For if we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake?” NPNF2 6: 487–488

Predictably Jerome’s revision of the Latin Gospels was not welcomed by all

Jerome noted “a report suddenly reached me that certain contemptible creatures were deliberately assailing me with the charge that I had endeavoured to correct passages in the gospels, against the authority of the ancients and the opinion of the whole world.” (Ep 27.1). Jerome argued he was not correcting the Scriptures, rather he was correcting the errors of scribes, copyists, and translators. “I am not, I repeat, so ignorant as to suppose that any of the Lord’s words is either in need of correction or is not divinely inspired; but 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.” (Ep 27.1)

Hebraica Veritas

After the death of Pope Damasus Jerome had few friends and many enemies in Rome. He moved to the Holy Land and established a monastery in Bethlehem. Jerome began to study Hebrew with the aid of several Jewish tutors (Ep. 84:3) and he saw that the OT was in need of a fresh translation into Latin. Not from the Greek LXX, but from the original Hebrew.

The Latin versions of the OT were “a descent of three steps” (NPNF2 6: 488)

For Jerome where the true text was to be found there too the true canon.

The curious incident of the gourd

Not everyone was happy with Jerome’s new version and Augustine cautioned Jerome not to upset tradition by moving away from the LXX. He even warned Jerome that the new version was causing division in some N. African churches. “A certain bishop, one of our brethren, having introduced in the church over which he presides the reading of your version, came upon a word in the book of the prophet Jonah, of which you have given a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers, and had been chanted for so many generations in the church. (Jonah 4:6) Thereupon arose such a tumult in the congregation, especially among the Greeks, correcting what had been read, and denouncing the translation as false.” (Aug, Ep. 71.3.5). “The man was compelled to correct your version in that passage as if it had been falsely translated, as he desired not to be left without a congregation,—a calamity which he narrowly escaped.” (Aug, Ep. 71.3.5). Augustine was willing to be corrected on this issue (many other Christians were not!). “I beseech you to correct boldly whatever you see needful to censure in my writings. For although, so far as the titles of honour which prevail in the Church are concerned, a bishop’s rank is above that of a presbyter, nevertheless in many things Augustin is inferior to Jerome; albeit correction is not to be refused nor despised, even when it comes from one who in all respects may be an inferior.” (Aug., Ep. 82.4.33)

The Legacy of Jerome’s Translation

Jerome’s Latin version was based on his conviction that the original language of Scripture as authoritative. A recognition of the Hebrew canon of the OT that excluded the Apocrypha.

Gregory the Great, who served as pope from ad 590–604, approved the use of both the Old Latin and Jerome’s new version (the Vulgate) in churches. As late as the 12th century there were copies of the old Latin version still being copied by scribes.

The Vulgate was translated into English by the followers of John Wycliffe in the 14th century (the so called Wycliffe Bibles). On April 8, 1546, the Council of Trent adopted the Vulgate as the authorized translation of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Sixtus V published an official printing of this authoritative text in 1590, as did Pope Clement VIII in 1592 (known as the Clementine Vulgate). The Neo-Vulgate (Nova Vulgata) was produced under Pope Paul VI and included stylistic and textual updates (relying on modern critical methods). It was published in Rome in 1979 and remains the official version for the Roman Catholic Church


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