Jerome - Translations and Commentaries

Translations and Commentaries

Jerome was a scholar at a time when that statement implied a fluency in Greek. He knew some Hebrew when he started his translation project, but moved to Jerusalem to strengthen his grip on Jewish scripture commentary. A wealthy Roman aristocrat, Paula, funded his stay in a monastery in Bethlehem and he completed his translation there. He began in 382 by correcting the existing Latin language version of the New Testament, commonly referred to as the Vetus Latina. By 390 he turned to translating the Hebrew Bible from the original Hebrew, having previously translated portions from the Septuagint which came from Alexandria. He was aware that the Council of Jamnia, or mainstream rabbinical Judaism, had rejected the Septuagint as valid Jewish scriptural texts because of what were ascertained as mistranslations along with its Hellenistic heretical elements. He completed this work by 405. Prior to Jerome's Vulgate, all Latin translations of the Old Testament were based on the Septuagint not the Hebrew. Jerome's decision to use a Hebrew text instead of the previous translated Septuagint went against the advice of most other Christians, including Augustine, who thought the Septuagint inspired. Modern scholarship, however, has cast doubts on the actual quality of Jerome's Hebrew knowledge. Many modern scholars believe that the Greek Hexapla is the main source for Jerome's "iuxta Hebraeos" translation of the Old Testament.

For the next 15 years, until he died, Jerome produced a number of commentaries on Scripture, often explaining his translation choices in using the original Hebrew rather than suspect translations. His patristic commentaries align closely with Jewish tradition, and he indulges in allegorical and mystical subtleties after the manner of Philo and the Alexandrian school. Unlike his contemporaries, he emphasizes the difference between the Hebrew Bible "apocrypha" and the Hebraica veritas of the protocanonical books. Evidence of this can be found in his introductions to the Solomonic writings, the Book of Tobit, and the Book of Judith. Most notable, however, is the statement from his introduction to the Books of Samuel:

This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a helmeted introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is outside of them must be placed aside among the Apocryphal writings.

Jerome's commentaries fall into three groups:

  • His translations or recastings of Greek predecessors, including fourteen homilies on the Book of Jeremiah and the same number on the Book of Ezekiel by Origen (translated ca. 380 in Constantinople); two homilies of Origen of Alexandria on the Song of Solomon (in Rome, ca. 383); and thirty-nine on the Gospel of Luke (ca. 389, in Bethlehem). The nine homilies of Origen on the Book of Isaiah included among his works were not done by him. Here should be mentioned, as an important contribution to the topography of Israel, his book De situ et nominibus locorum Hebraeorum, a translation with additions and some regrettable omissions of the Onomasticon of Eusebius. To the same period (ca. 390) belongs the Liber interpretationis nominum Hebraicorum, based on a work supposed to go back to Philo and expanded by Origen.
  • Original commentaries on the Old Testament. To the period before his settlement at Bethlehem and the following five years belong a series of short Old Testament studies: De seraphim, De voce Osanna, De tribus quaestionibus veteris legis (usually included among the letters as 18, 20, and 36); Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesim; Commentarius in Ecclesiasten; Tractatus septem in Psalmos 10-16 (lost); Explanationes in Michaeam, Sophoniam, Nahum, Habacuc, Aggaeum. After 395 he composed a series of longer commentaries, though in rather a desultory fashion: first on Jonah and Obadiah (396), then on Isaiah (ca. 395-ca. 400), on Zechariah, Malachi, Hoseah, Joel, Amos (from 406), on the Book of Daniel (ca. 407), on Ezekiel (between 410 and 415), and on Jeremiah (after 415, left unfinished).
  • New Testament commentaries. These include only Philemon, Galatians, Ephesians, and Titus (hastily composed 387-388); Matthew (dictated in a fortnight, 398); Mark, selected passages in Luke, Revelation, and the prologue to the Gospel of John. Treating Revelation in his cursory fashion, he made use of an excerpt from the commentary of the North African Tichonius, which is preserved as a sort of argument at the beginning of the more extended work of the Spanish presbyter Beatus of Liébana. But before this he had already devoted to the Revelation another treatment, a rather arbitrary recasting of the commentary of Saint Victorinus, with whose chiliastic views he was not in accord, substituting for the chiliastic conclusion a spiritualizing exposition of his own, supplying an introduction, and making certain changes in the text.

The works of Hippolytus of Rome and Irenaeus greatly influenced Jerome's interpretation of prophecy. He noted the distinction between the original Septuagint and Theodotion's later substitution.

Jerome warned that those substituting false interpretations for the actual meaning of Scripture belonged to the “synagogue of the Antichrist”. “He that is not of Christ is of Antichrist,” he wrote to Pope Damasus I. He believed that “the mystery of iniquity” written about by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 was already in action when “every one chatters about his views.” To Jerome, the power restraining this mystery of iniquity was the Roman Empire, but as it fell this restraining force was removed. He warned a noble woman of Gaul:

“He that letteth is taken out of the way, and yet we do not realize that Antichrist is near. Yes, Antichrist is near whom the Lord Jesus Christ “shall consume with the spirit of his mouth.” “Woe unto them,” he cries, “that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days.”... Savage tribes in countless numbers have overrun all parts of Gaul. The whole country between the Alps and the Pyrenees, between the Rhine and the Ocean, has been laid waste by hordes of Quadi, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepids, Herules, Saxons, Burgundians, Allemanni, and—alas! for the commonweal!-- even Pannonians.

His Commentary on Daniel was expressly written to offset the criticisms of Porphyry, who taught that Daniel related entirely to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and was written by an unknown individual living in the 2nd century BC. Against Porphyry, Jerome identified Rome as the fourth kingdom of chapters two and seven, but his view of chapters eight and 11 was more complex. Jerome held that chapter eight describes the activity of Antiochus Epiphanes, who is understood as a "type" of a future antichrist; 11:24 onwards applies primarily to a future antichrist but was partially fulfilled by Antiochus. Instead, he advocated that the “little horn” was the Antichrist:

We should therefore concur with the traditional interpretation of all the commentators of the Christian Church, that at the end of the world, when the Roman Empire is to be destroyed, there shall be ten kings who will partition the Roman world amongst themselves. Then an insignificant eleventh king will arise, who will overcome three of the ten kings... after they have been slain, the seven other kings also will bow their necks to the victor.

In his Commentary on Daniel, he noted, “Let us not follow the opinion of some commentators and suppose him to be either the Devil or some demon, but rather, one of the human race, in whom Satan will wholly take up his residence in bodily form.” In interpreting 2 Thessalonians's claim that the Antichrist will sit in God's temple, Jerome preferred the view that the "temple" should be interpreted as the Church, not as the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jerome identified the four prophetic kingdoms symbolized in Daniel 2 as the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Medes and Persians, Macedon, and Rome. Jerome identified the stone cut out without hands as "namely, the Lord and Savior".

Jerome refuted Porphyry's application of the little horn of chapter seven to Antiochus. He expected that at the end of the world, Rome would be destroyed, and partitioned among ten kingdoms before the little horn appeared.

Jerome believed that Cyrus of Persia is the higher of the two horns of the Medo-Persian ram of Daniel 8:3. The he-goat is Greece smiting Persia. Alexander is the great horn, which is then succeeded by Alexander's half brother Philip and three of his generals.

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