Jerome—A Controversial Pioneer in Bible Translation
ON April 8, 1546, the Council of Trent decreed that the Latin Vulgate “has been approved by the [Catholic] Church . . . and that no one dare or presume under any pretext whatsoever to reject it.” Though the Vulgate was completed over one thousand years earlier, it and its translator, Jerome, had long been the center of controversy. Who was Jerome? Why were he and his Bible translation controversial? How does his work influence Bible translation today?
The Making of a Scholar
Jerome’s Latin name was Eusebius Hieronymus. He was born about 346 C.E. in Stridon, in the Roman province of Dalmatia, near the present-day border between Italy and Slovenia.* His parents were moderately wealthy, and he tasted the advantages of money at an early age, receiving an education in Rome under the renowned grammarian Donatus. Jerome proved to be a gifted student of grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. During this period he also began to study Greek.
After leaving Rome in 366 C.E., Jerome wandered about, finally ending up in Aquileia, Italy, where he was introduced to the concept of asceticism. Attracted to these views of extreme self-denial, he and a group of friends spent the next several years cultivating an ascetic way of life.
In 373 C.E., an unexplained disturbance caused the group to break up. Disillusioned, Jerome wandered eastward across Bithynia, Galatia, and Cilicia and eventually arrived in Antioch, Syria.
The long journey took its toll on him. Exhausted and in poor health, Jerome was nearly overcome by fever. “Oh, if only the Lord Jesus Christ would suddenly transport me to you,” he said, writing to a friend. “My poor body, weak even when well, has been shattered.”
As if illness, loneliness, and inner conflict were not enough, Jerome soon faced yet another crisis—a spiritual one. In a dream he saw himself “dragged before the judgment seat” of God. When asked to identify himself, Jerome replied: “I am a Christian.” But the one presiding fired back: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ.”
Up until then Jerome’s passion for learning had primarily centered on the study of pagan classics rather than on God’s Word. “I was tortured,” he said, “by the fire of conscience.” Hoping to set matters right, Jerome vowed in his dream: “Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied Thee.”
Later, Jerome argued that he could not be held accountable for a pledge made in a dream. Still he was determined to fulfill his vow—at least in principle. So Jerome left Antioch and sought seclusion in Chalcis in the Syrian desert. Living as a hermit, he immersed himself in a study of the Bible and theological literature. Said Jerome: “I read the books of God with a zeal greater than I had previously given to the books of men.” He also learned the local Syriac tongue and began to study Hebrew with the help of a Jew who had converted to Christianity.
The Pope’s Commission
After about five years of monastic living, Jerome returned to Antioch to continue his studies. Upon arriving, however, he found the church to be deeply divided. Indeed, while he was still in the desert, Jerome had appealed to Pope Damasus for advice, saying: “The church is rent into three factions, and each of these is eager to seize me for its own.”
In time, Jerome decided to align himself with Paulinus, one of the three men who had laid claim to the title of bishop of Antioch. Jerome agreed to be ordained by Paulinus on two conditions. First, he wanted to be free to pursue his monastic ambitions. And second, he insisted on remaining exempt from any priestly obligations to minister to a particular church.
In 381 C.E., Jerome accompanied Paulinus to the Council of Constantinople and thereafter continued on with him to Rome. Pope Damasus quickly recognized Jerome’s scholarship and linguistic skills. Within a year Jerome was elevated to the prestigious position of private secretary to Damasus.
As secretary, Jerome did not shy away from controversy. If anything, he seemed to attract it. For example, he continued to live as an ascetic in the midst of the luxurious papal court. In addition, by promoting his austere life-style and by speaking out vehemently against the worldly excesses of the clergy, Jerome made a good number of enemies.
In spite of his detractors, however, Jerome received Pope Damasus’ full support. The pope had good reason to encourage Jerome to continue his Bible research. At the time, there were numerous Latin versions of the Bible in use. Many of these were carelessly translated, containing glaring errors. Another concern of Damasus was that language was dividing the Eastern and Western realms of the church. Few in the East knew Latin; fewer in the West knew Greek.
Pope Damasus was therefore anxious for a revised Latin translation of the Gospels. Damasus wanted a translation that would accurately reflect the original Greek, yet be eloquent and clear in its Latin. Jerome was one of the few scholars who could provide such a translation. Being fluent in Greek, Latin, and Syriac and having some working knowledge of Hebrew, he was well qualified for the job. So with Damasus’ commission, Jerome began a project that would consume more than the next 20 years of his life.
The Controversy Intensifies
Although working with great speed in translating the Gospels, Jerome displayed a clear, scholarly technique. Comparing all of the Greek manuscripts then available, he made corrections in the Latin text, both in style and in substance, in order to bring it into closer harmony with the Greek text.
Jerome’s translation of the four Gospels was generally well received, as was his Latin revision of the Psalms, which was based on the Greek Septuagint text. Nevertheless, he still had critics. “Certain contemptible creatures,” wrote Jerome, “were deliberately assailing me with the charge that I had endeavored to correct passages in the gospels, against the authority of the ancients and the opinion of the whole world.” Such denunciations intensified after the death of Pope Damasus in 384 C.E. Jerome’s relationship with the new pope was less than favorable, so he decided to leave Rome. Once more, Jerome headed east.
The Making of a Hebrew Scholar
In 386 C.E., Jerome settled in Bethlehem, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He was accompanied by a small band of loyal followers, including Paula, a wealthy woman of nobility from Rome. Paula had adopted the ascetic way of life as a result of Jerome’s preaching. With her financial backing, a monastery was established under Jerome’s direction. There he pursued his scholarly work and completed the greatest labor of his life.
Living in Palestine afforded Jerome the opportunity to improve his understanding of Hebrew. He paid several Jewish tutors to help him understand some of the more difficult aspects of the language. Even with a tutor, though, it was not easy. Concerning one teacher, Baraninas of Tiberias, Jerome said: “What trouble and expense it cost me to get Baraninas to teach me under cover of night.” Why did they study at night? Because Baraninas feared the Jewish community’s view of his associating with a “Christian”!
In Jerome’s day, Jews often ridiculed Hebrew-speaking Gentiles for their inability to pronounce the guttural sounds properly. Still after much effort, Jerome was able to master these sounds. Jerome also transliterated a large number of Hebrew words into Latin. This step not only helped him remember the words but also preserved the Hebrew pronunciation of that time.
Jerome’s Greatest Controversy
How much of the Bible that Pope Damasus intended for Jerome to translate is not clear. But there is little doubt as to how Jerome viewed the matter. Jerome was very focused and determined. His burning desire was to produce something “useful to the Church, worthy of posterity.” He thus resolved to provide a revised Latin translation of the entire Bible.
For the Hebrew Scriptures, Jerome intended to base his work on the Septuagint. This Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, originally translated in the third century B.C.E., was viewed by many as directly inspired by God. Thus, the Septuagint enjoyed wide circulation among Greek-speaking Christians of that time.
As Jerome progressed with his work, however, he found inconsistencies between the Greek manuscripts, similar to those he had encountered in the Latin. Jerome’s frustration grew. Finally, he came to the conclusion that to produce a reliable translation, he would have to bypass the Greek manuscripts, including the much revered Septuagint, and go directly to the original Hebrew text.
This decision caused an outcry. Jerome was labeled by some as a falsifier of the text, a profaner of God, abandoning the traditions of the church in favor of the Jews. Even Augustine—the church’s leading theologian of the time—pleaded with Jerome to return to the Septuagint text, saying: “If your translation begins to be more generally read in many churches, it will be a grievous thing that, in the reading of Scripture, differences must arise between the Latin Churches and the Greek Churches.”
Yes, Augustine’s fear was that the church might split if the Western churches used Jerome’s Latin text—based on the Hebrew texts—while the Greek churches of the East still used the Septuagint version.* Additionally, Augustine voiced misgivings about putting aside the Septuagint in favor of a translation that only Jerome could defend.
How did Jerome react to all these naysayers? True to his character, Jerome ignored his critics. He continued to work directly from the Hebrew, and by the year 405 C.E., he had completed his Latin Bible. Years later his translation was dubbed Vulgate, which refers to a commonly received version (the Latin vulgatus meaning “common, that which is popular”).
Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was far more than a revision of an existing text. For generations to come, it changed the course of Bible study and translation. “The Vulgate,” said historian Will Durant, “remains as the greatest and most influential literary accomplishment of the fourth century.”
Although Jerome possessed a sharp tongue and a contentious personality, he single-handedly redirected Bible research back to the inspired Hebrew text. With a keen eye, he studied and compared ancient Hebrew and Greek Bible manuscripts that are no longer available to us today. His work also preceded that of the Jewish Masoretes. Hence, the Vulgate is a valuable reference for comparing alternate renderings of Bible texts.
Without condoning his extreme behavior or religious views, lovers of God’s Word can appreciate the diligent efforts of this controversial pioneer in Bible translation. And yes, Jerome did fulfill his goal—he produced something “worthy of posterity.”
Not all historians agree on the dates and order of events in Jerome’s life.
As things worked out, Jerome’s translation became the basic Bible for Western Christendom, while the Septuagint continues to be used in Eastern Christendom right down to today.
[Picture on page 28]
Statue of Jerome in Bethlehem
[Picture Credit Lines on page 26]
Top left, Hebrew manuscript: Courtesy of the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Bottom left, Syriac manuscript: Reproduced by kind permission of The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; Top center, Greek manuscript: Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority