Friday, August 19, 2011

Augustine and Jerome: Authority and the OT Biblical Canon (Jerome)


Jerome came to a different conclusion on the content of the Old Testament. He limited his list to the canon the Jews accepted consisting in 22 or 24 books (the same as our 39). The reason for this is that Jerome approached the question of the Old Testament canon from a different vantage point than Augustine. He had “retired to the Holy Land in 386 to devote himself to his work on the Bible and its exegesis—textual revision, translation and commentaries. His interests were primarily literary and philological rather than philosophical.”[1] Jerome’s advantage over Augustine was being immersed in the original language of the Old Testament, Judaism, and working with diverging Hebrew and Greek manuscripts when making translations of various Old Testament books. Augustine on the other hand did not even know Hebrew.

Today it may seem a given that a text should be analyzed in its original language and context, but this was not always the case. “In the late fourth century however, the climate could not have been more different. The leading Latin biblical scholars of the day looked askance at ‘Hebrew verity’ as a working hermeneutical concept.”[2] In many ways, Jerome went against the grain in declaring that one should give priority to the Hebrew text even though notable predecessors (and Augustine inconsistently) held to the principle of going back to the original for insight.[3]

A major difference contributing to Jerome favoring the Hebrew text over the Septuagint (and by extension the having a different canon list) was his understanding of the Septuagint itself. As Jerome worked with the Septuagint, he began to realize “how problematic the Septuagint text was; not only was there a wide divergency between different versions of the Septuagint, but the Septuagint, on which all Latin translations were based, differed in many points from the Hebrew one wich had become the official one.”[4] In other words, he discovered the Septuagint differed among its own versions and with the Hebrew! If the Septuagint as a whole was supposed to be authoritative in the way Augustine thought it was, it made no sense that it diverged from the Hebrew and even among its own copies.

Jerome’s reasoning for going back to the Jewish source was not at odds with apostolic authority. In fact, “one of his chief arguments to his fellow Christians was that he had found that the Septuagint omits certain passages which are quoted from the Old Testament by Christ and the apostles…Jerome felt it was shocking that such errors should be accepted through force of habbit.”[5] When writing an apology for himself against Rufinus he maintains:

I do not condemn, I do not censure the Seventy, but I am bold enough to prefer the Apostles to them all. It is the Apostle through whose mouth I hear the voice of Christ, and I read that in the classification of spiritual gifts they are placed before prophets (1 Cor. xii. 28; Eph. iv. 11), while interpreters occupy almost the lowest place.[6]

But I was encouraged above all by the authoritative publications of the Evangelists and Apostles, in which we read much taken from the Old Testament which is not found in our manuscripts. For example, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my Son’ (Matt. ii. 15): ‘For he shall be called a Nazarene’ (Ibid. 23): and ‘They shall look on him whom they pierced’ (John xix. 37): and ‘Rivers of living water shall flow out of his belly’ (John vii. 38): and ‘Things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, which God hath prepared for them that love him’ (1 Cor. ii. 9), and many other passages which lack their proper context. Let us ask our opponents then where these things are written, and when they are unable to tell, let us produce them from the Hebrew. The first passage is in Hosea, (xi. 1), the second in Isaiah (xi. 1), the third in Zechariah (xii. 10), the fourth in Proverbs (xviii. 4), the fifth also in Isaiah (lxiv. 4). Being ignorant of all this many follow the ravings of the Apocrypha, and prefer to the inspired books the melancholy trash which comes to us from Spain.[7]

What Jerome resisted in his mind was certainly not apostolicity. In fact, he took this as extremely weighty since one of his main arguments depended on the Septuagint leaving out passages the apostles quoted. His annoyance stems more from many in the church accepting flawed copies because they were accustomed to. Even Augustine displayed this tendency when he told Jerome:

To be honest, I would prefer you to translate the canonical books of Scripture for us from the Greek text which is known as the Septuagint. I feel that many problems would arise if your translation began to be read regularly in many churches, because the Latin churches would be out of step with the Greek ones, especially as anyone who puts forward objections will easily be proved wrong when the Greek text is produced, for Greek is the language almost universally known…it would be almost impossible to get hold of the Hebrew texts to use in defence of the point which he objected [emphasis mine].[8]

Still, could it be there is a problem for Jerome when it comes to apostolic authority? It was mentioned earlier that Jerome acknowledged to Augustine that the apostles often used the Greek text over the Hebrew and yet Jerome prioritized the Hebrew. How was he able to reconcile this with his appeal to the apostles referring to passages that do not appear in the Septuagint? Is it consistent to follow apostolic use in one instance and not the other? Jerome’s understanding is further complicated when in some places Jerome rejects the basis for the Septuagint’s authority (the legend of the seventy) as a lie, says the Septuagint has errors and explicitly defends his prioritizing of the Hebrew while in other places he appears shocked that it would be suggested that he is undermining the Septuagint’s authority!

Earlier in Jerome’s career, Martin Hengel acknowledges that Jerome had taken a milder stance towards the legend of the seventy. Jerome thought the differences in the text could have been due to style or that “[the translators] must not necessarily have been ‘inspired’, although he still refers positively here to the translators ‘who translated filled with the Holy Spirit, for that they certainly were’. Later he is much more reserved on this point.”[9] It is this kind of discrepancy that has led scholars to disagree on whether or not Jerome actually denied the authority of the LXX. Still, the following shows that later Jerome did not see the translators as prophetic and thought the legend itself was a fraud:

I do not know whose false imagination led him to invent the story of the seventy cells at Alexandria, in which, though separated from each other, the translators were said to have written the same words. Aristeas, the champion of that same Ptolemy, and Josephus, long after, relate nothing of the kind; their account is that the Seventy assembled in one basilica consulted together, and did not prophesy. For it is one thing to be a prophet, another to be a translator. The former through the Spirit, foretells things to come; the latter must use his learning and facility in speech to translate what he understands…I do not condemn, I do not censure the Seventy, but I am bold enough to prefer the Apostles to them all. It is the Apostle through whose mouth I hear the voice of Christ, and I read that in the classification of spiritual gifts they are placed before prophets (1 Cor. xii. 28; Eph. iv. 11), while interpreters occupy almost the lowest place.[10]

It should be further noted “Jerome is also the only author in the early church who repeatedly emphasizes that the Seventy did not translate all of the Hebrew Scriptures of the prophets, but only the five books of Moses.”[11]

Add to this that Josephus, who gives the story of the Seventy Translators, reports them as translating only the five books of Moses; and we also acknowledge that these are more in harmony with the Hebrew than the rest. And, further, those who afterward came into the field as translators—I mean Aquila and Symmachus and Theodotion—give a version very different from that which we use.[12]

Did this mean Jerome thought the LXX had absolutely no authority? It is probably best to view Jerome’s understanding of the Septuagint as a different kind of authority. Hints of this are revealed when we notice Jerome is not only enraged over the idea that he himself would retract the value of his work from the Hebrew in a letter, but the thought that he would try to undermine the Septuagint is unimaginable.

It is this same man, then, who wrote this fictitious letter of retractation in my name, making out that my translation of the Hebrew books was bad, who, we now hear, accuses me of having translated the Holy Scriptures with a view to disparage the Septuagint…Am I likely to have said anything derogatory to the seventy translators, whose work I carefully purged from corruptions and gave to Latin readers many years ago, and daily expound it at our conventual gatherings; whose version of the Psalms has so long been the subject of my meditation and my song? Was I so foolish as to wish to forget in old age what I learned in youth? All my treatises have been woven out of statements warranted by their version. My commentaries on the twelve prophets are an explanation of their version as well as my own…[13]

We are indeed left confused if we understand the Septuagint to be authoritative to Jerome in only one possible way (as inspiration or prophecy). It would look as though Jerome was undermining the Septuagint’s authority and should be unable to deliver his defense in good conscience. He is unwaveringly in support of his translation from the Hebrew and unapologetic in regards to correcting the errors from the Septuagint, and earlier we saw that he rejected the basis for the Septuagint’s authority in the legend of the seventy, and yet he wants to show he is in support of the Septuagint and its authority? If all of this is to be taken as true, then a different understanding of the Septuagint’s authority must be in view.

In The Monk and the Book, Megan Williams discusses two sections in Jerome’s commentaries on the Prophets that are valuable in helping us see what kind of authority Jerome saw the Septuagint as having. “First, Jerome discusses the literal and historical sense of the passage under exegesis, then its allegorical or spiritual meaning.” She goes on to explain that to Jerome these are separate exegetical traditions where the literal and historical sense is derived from the Hebrew and the allegorical from the Septuagint. “The elucidation of the literal and historical sense provides the necessary preconditions for allegorical interpretation.”[14] Jerome uses the Hebrew as the main authoritative text that limits the range of interpretation. In sum, the Septuagint was subordinate, but not without authority in so far as it was rightly used by the church or depended on the apostles in interpretation.

The meanings that Jerome…considered most valuable were those extracted by the Alexandrian tradition of allegory. Only such imaginative transpositions of the biblical text to the situation of the church, or the individual Christian soul, could give life to material that on its surface seemed obsessed with the events of the distant past.[15]

Understanding the authority of the Septuagint as being in the allegorical interpretive role, alongside his affirmation of apostolic authority, explains why Jerome was able to maintain the Septuagint had errors and was often inaccurate without being open to the critique of holding a double standard when it came to appealing to the apostles. He rejected parts of the Septuagint because the apostles did, and could easily accept apostolic use in other areas. However, elsewhere it is apparent that he wrongly thinks the “apostolic men” only quoted from the LXX when it was not at odds with the Hebrew text. That is, if Jerome means to say that where the Hebrew text and the Septuagint differ they do not use the Septuagint, he is incorrect. Although, it could be that Jerome is aware of the apostles using the Septuagint where there are literal textual differences, but thinks there is an implicit allegorical or spiritual interpretive meaning present that the apostles utilized in interpretation. If this is the case, then Jerome is not as blatantly incorrect after all and is instead acknowledging the apostolic (as opposed to the translators’) inspired prerogative to bring out additional or already contained allegorical meaning in a text. This is not to say he does not think he or others in the church can identify allegorical meanings in the text (as we already have seen, he believes they can), but he does not assign the church, the translators and himself the same level of authority as an inspired prophet or apostle.

When Jerome’s understanding of the authority of the Septuagint and the Hebrew is applied to the question of why Jerome was able to accept only the books in the Hebrew canon and not those he deemed apocryphal, his reasoning can be summed up as follows: 1) The apostles did not accept the whole Septuagint as authoritative (even though the apostles specifically quote from parts of it[16]) and only used what was also found in the Hebrew. There is no reason coming from the apostles to accept more than what the Jews already have. 2) He did not believe in the legend supporting the Septuagint’s authority and so he did not need to understand them as prophetic or inspired and thus having the same sort of claim on his conscience as an apostle would. 3) He knew there were no books composed beyond the first five books of Moses. So, even if the Seventy did have unique inspiration, they would not have translated the apocryphal books. 4) The apostles included Christological material that the Septuagint copies the church used did not. This undermined the foundation of the Septuagint’s authority as literal and historical and by extension other parts of it. Finally, 5) Jerome understood that the real reason many in the church accepted the Septuagint, its additions and detractions was through force of habit and despite any historical or factual claims to the contrary.

[1] Caroline White, The Correspondance (394-419) Between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 2.

[2] Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 64-65.

[3] Jerome. “Jerome’s Apology for Himself Against the Books of Rufinus.” Edited by Philip Schaff. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Series II Vol 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 1.13.

[4] Caronline White, 36.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] Jerome, Jerome’s Apology for Himself Against the Books of Rufinus, 2.24.

[7] Ibid., 2.25.

[8] Augustine, Ep.92, Edited by Caroline White, 92.

[9] Hengel, 48-49.

[10] Jerome, Jerome’s Apology for Himself Against the Books of Rufinus, 2.24.

[11] Hengel, 49.

[12] Jerome. “Preface to the Book of Hebrew Questions” Edited by Philip Schaff. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Series II Vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).

[13] Jerome, Jerome’s Apology for Himself Against the Books of Rufinus, 2.24.

[14] Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 114-120.

[15] Ibid., 128.

[16] The New Testament writers do not quote from the apocryphal books even though the books from the Hebrew canon are, with the possible exception of Enoch. However, there are occasions when the New Testament writers will allude to these other books as well as pagan works on occasion.

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