Essay: Perceptions of Scripture in the Late 4th century CE

In my ongoing—feels like never-ending—research for my dissertation, I ran across the following two paragraphs, written by Jerome to Pope Damasus in 383 CE. It is Jerome’s preface to his translation of the New Testament—with a few comments about the Old Testament. The source of the following quotation is https://vulgate.org/ but I have emphasized in bold print the statements that stand out to me as most significant—at least for my research—and will discuss each below.

You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. 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; and how can I dare to change the language of the world in its hoary old age, and carry it back to the early days of its infancy? Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein? Now there are two consoling reflections which enable me to bear the odium—in the first place, the command is given by you who are the supreme bishop; and secondly, even on the showing of those who revile us, 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?

I am not discussing the Old Testament, which was turned into Greek by the Seventy elders, and has reached us by a descent of three steps. I do not ask what Aquila and Symmachus think, or why Theodotion takes a middle course between the ancients and the moderns. I am willing to let that be the true translation which had apostolic approval. I am now speaking of the New Testament. This was undoubtedly composed in Greek, with the exception of the work of Matthew the Apostle, who was the first to commit to writing the Gospel of Christ, and who published his work in Judæa in Hebrew characters. 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 pass over those manuscripts which are associated with the names of Lucian and Hesychius, and the authority of which is perversely maintained by a handful of disputatious persons. It is obvious that these writers could not amend anything in the Old Testament after the labours of the Seventy; and it was useless to correct the New, for versions of Scripture which already exist in the languages of many nations show that their additions are false. 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. But to avoid any great divergences from the Latin which we are accustomed to read, I have used my pen with some restraint, and while I have corrected only such passages as seemed to convey a different meaning, I have allowed the rest to remain as they are.

It is important to note that Jerome’s anthology of biblical texts—later called the Vulgate— not only included the sixty-six books tha Protestants later believe are the only God-breathed writings but also Tobit, Judith (from the Aramaic), and additions to Esther, additions to Daniel, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 3 and 4 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasses, Psalm 151, and Loadiceans—from the Greek Septuagint.[1]  The Vulgate was not widely accepted at first, and was even considered by some as “blasphemous”—see #2 below—but by the mid-6th century CE, it was commonly used, especially in western churches and for centuries the Vulgate has been the authoritative biblical text for the Roman Catholic Church.

  1. NB[2]: “the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another … for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies.”

Here, Jerome is referring to the copies of the New Testament Scriptures. Not only are there lots of copies of the New Testament books by 383 CE, but frequently they differ from one another. But how different are they? Jerome’s perspective: “there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies.” In other words, the New Testament scriptures did not exist in multiple copies that were uniform and in virtual agreement with each other. Rather they existed in pluriformity, which means many and, at least, somewhat divergent manuscripts. And here, Jerome is speaking  not of translations of those texts but copies of the Greek texts in Greek. 

  • NB: “I am not discussing the Old Testament, which was turned into Greek by the Seventy elders … . I am willing to let that be the true translation which had apostolic approval.”

Jerome, as well as most other scholars and church leaders of the first few centuries, and even among some denominations today, believed that all of the Jewish Scriptures were translated by seventy elders in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd century BCE. For centuries Christians believed that as well, some even to the point that they believed and taught that Septuagint (LXX) was inspired by God.[3] This is no doubt the reason why Jerome stated that the Greek translation was, “…the true translation which had apostolic approval.” After all, wasn’t it the version of the Scriptures that the apostles utilized in their writings? In fact, the majority of quotations and allusions to the Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament documents were taken from the Greek translations, and only a very few from the Hebrew texts. There is no question among scholars that “the Bible” of the early Christians consisted of the Greek translations of the Jewish Scriptures.

  • NB: But to avoid any great divergences from the Latin which we are accustomed to read, I have used my pen with some restraint, and while I have corrected only such passages as seemed to convey a different meaning, I have allowed the rest to remain as they are.”

Jerome describes the challenge that every translator of Scripture—or of any document—faces: that is, the question of how to preserve enough familiarity so that the translator doesn’t annoy or anger his audience, while at the same time acting up convictions of a better way to translate the documents into the present language. All interpreters engage in interpretation. There is no word-for-word consistency between different languages. One word in any language usually has a range of meanings. The translators strive, to the best of their knowledge and ability, to understand the literary, as well as historical, contexts in order best grasp what might be the best word or phrase to use in their translations. Here, Jerome expresses a desire “to avoid any great divergences from the Latin which we are accustomed to read.” Many examples could be given how Jerome’s translation from Greek and, later, Hebrew texts help shape or support numerous theological perspectives that have held sway for centuries. The point here is that all translations are interpretations and that’s why today, with our multitudinous array of Bibles and of translations of any one version of the Bible (i.e., Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.), there are clear and obvious differences, many that are minor—in terms of doctrine or belief—but some that are quite significant.

My favourite essay on the challenges of, and the problems with, most translations is written by Robert Alter in the “Introduction” to his epic The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. The heading of Part I is titled, “The Bible in English and the Heresy of Explanation.” There’s trying to make the translation readable and understandable to the audience, culture, and time period for which they are translating, but it is almost impossible for one’s theological presupposition and religious thrownness not to creep into one’s translation. As Jerome stated, “…to avoid any great divergences from the Latin which we are accustomed to read, I have used my pen with some restraint…”.

For example: why do translators persist: (1) in translating ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) as “church” when it simply means “a gathering of citizens, an assembly, a meeting”; (2) in transliterating βάπτισμα (baptisma) as “baptism” when it means “the act of dipping, immersion, washing”; (3) in translating the Hebrew word צְבָאֹ֜ות (sabaoth) as “Almighty” when it follows “Yahweh” when the word means “army, troops, war, hosts”? And I could go on. I’m not saying I have the right, or even the best, answer to any of these questions, but these are examples of how translations from Hebrew to Greek or Greek to Latin or Hebrew to English, etc., have impacted and, in many cases, solidified a meaning that, consciously or unconsciously, supports a particular theological doctrine rather than simply translating, as best as possible, what the word means. Imagine, if when we read the biblical texts we read “assembly,” not “church,” or “immersion,” not “baptism, ” or “the Lord of armies,” not “the Lord Almighty” How would that have affected what we understand Christian gatherings or immersions or God to be? I think, a lot.

Conclusion

I appreciate Jerome’s honesty in the preface which he wrote to the Pope who had requested of him to make a new Latin translation. He struggled with the task, with a “Who am I?” attitude and expressed a fear of the anger he would face when people disagreed with his translation choices, which he knew at least some would. Even though translations are necessary‑—unless we all are willing to learn to read Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—they are not perfect and never will be, for so many reasons. I hope that all readers of the biblical texts (whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or others) will keep in mind, since we have nothing even close to the original writings, that they are reading translations, influenced by previous translations[4], all of which are translations of copies of copies, which were copied hundreds of years after the original writings and the oldest copies are preserved in small fragments and incomplete copies. If what Jerome, in the late 4th century CE, said about the copies of Scriptures being distributed all over the world and that there are as many differences as there are copies, how much more is all that true today?   


[1] “But from 390 to 405 A.D., St. Jerome translated anew all 39 books in the Hebrew Bible, including a further, third, version of the Psalms, which survives in a very few Vulgate manuscripts.” See: https://vulgate.org/.

[2] NB comes from the Latin phrase “nota bene” which meant “mark well” and is used in writing to tell the reader that something is important and they should take special note of what follows.

[3] Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek, 131-132. Law notes, “Eusebius tells his readers that the translation of the Septuagint was part of God’s plan to ready the world for the coming of Christianity.” Also, he notes, “The writings of the Apostolic fathers (mid-first to late second century [CE]) are saturated with citations from the Septuagint when they quote the Old Testament as scripture.” Patristic scholars note that among the early Church Fathers who by statement and use gave divine authority to the LXX were Tertullian, Justin Matyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandra, Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

[4] Think about the KJV of 1611 which virtually all scholars regard as a one of the most beautiful literary translations. Alter states that “that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew” (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, “Introduction”). That translation, nonetheless, has had a huge impact on other major translations that followed. The ASV of 1901 strove to be a more literal, almost word-for-word translation. Yet it retained the, by then, archaic readings of the pronouns, “thee” and “thou” and the renderings of verbs “wouldest,” “couldest,” etc., among others, probably for the same reason Jerome use his pen “with some restraint.”

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