In the fourth century, St. Jerome struggled to render the Word of God into the language of the day. It wasnt easy then and it isnt easy now. By Leslie J. Hoppe, O.F.M.
IS THE BEST TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE?
This is the question that people who teach biblical studies
hear more than any other. A bewildering abundance of alternatives
is available to those who want to begin reading the Bible. This
long list will grow because the Bible will continue to nourish
the faith and life of believers, because scholars will learn
more about the ancient languages in which the Bible was written,
and because the English language will continue to evolve. New
translations of the Bible are a practical necessity.
is not new. In the fourth century A.D., the language spoken
in the Roman Empire began to change. Before that time, Greek
was the dominant language. People of every ethnic background
in the empire spoke Greek in addition to their native tongue.
The Romans encouraged this since they saw themselves as the
heirs of Greek culture and civilization.
Latin, the language spoken by the Romans, began to replace
Greek as the common language in the western part of the empire.
This had a significant impact on the Church since its Bible
was in Greek. The New Testament, of course, was written in
Greek. Christians used the Septuagint, a Greek version
of the Hebrew Bible, as its version of the Old Testament.
(The word septuagint is derived from the Latin word
for 70 and is based on a legend that the Greek translation
was the work of 70 translators.) Because fewer and fewer Christians
in the West could read or understand Greek, the Church faced
a serious pastoral problem. How could the Bible remain accessible
the Bible were to continue shaping Christian faith and life,
it had to be rendered in Latin. Responding to this pastoral
need, Christian scholars produced several versions of the
Bible in Latin. Unfortunately, none of these has survived
to the present. We know them only from citations of individual
texts in early theological works.
these translations made the Bible accessible, they were flawed
on two counts. First, they were not the product of careful
study of ancient manuscripts. The necessity of copying ancient
texts by hand introduced many errors into Greek texts of the
Bible. Also, the first Latin Bibles translated the Greek text
of the Old Testamentnot the Hebrew text. Second, the
Latin in these early translations was not the best. It was
far too colloquial. None of these Latin translations was authorized
and none acquired that position that the Greek had. Pope Damasus
wanted a good, serviceable and authorized Latin text of the
Gospels for the liturgy. In 382, he commissioned a young priest
named Jerome to revise the Latin versions of the Gospels that
were in circulation.
Too Smart for His Own Good?
was this Jerome the pope chose for this task? Jerome was the
popes private secretary, but the commission that Damasus
gave Jerome was no political appointment. Jerome was a good
any good translator, Jerome had a flair for languages. He
was trilingual. He could speak, write and understand
Latin, Greek and Hebrewsomething that few others could
do. Jerome also studied Aramaic and could read it competently,
but he admitted having a problem with pronunciation. He could
speak Syriac and had some acquaintance with Arabic.
made Jerome the logical choice for the popes commission
in addition to his linguistic competence in the languages
of the East was his training in the Latin classics. He began
his study of rhetoric in Rome when he was a boy of 12. Donatus,
his teacher, was a famous Latin grammarian.
seems to have reproached himself later in life for the secular
color of his education. He wrote that he spent his youth in
the company of grammarians, rhetoricians and philosophers.
He once had a nightmare in which he saw himself before the
judgment seat of God, who asked Jerome, Who are you?
Jerome replied, A Christian, but God corrected
him: You are a liar. You are not a Christian but a Ciceronian.
Jerome awoke, he promised to read the books of God with greater
fervor than he devoted to his study of the books of
men. Jerome was uniquely prepared to translate the Scriptures
into Latin because he was both a Christian and a Ciceronian.
The touch of an outstanding linguist and scholarlike
the Roman Cicerowas sorely needed.
fulfilled his commission by producing a revision of the Gospels.
He took care to concern himself not only with his literary
craft but also with his own moral response to the Gospel.
He must have enjoyed his work because he produced a Latin
translation of the Psalms and a few Old Testament books, too.
This experience led Jerome to commit himself to a project
that occupied him for more than 20 years and proved to be
his lasting claim to fame: the translation of other parts
of the Bible from the original languages into Latin.
Damasus died in 384. Jerome was a leading candidate to succeed
his patron, but another priest of Rome, Siricius, was elected.
The new pope did not admire Jerome as much as Damasus had.
In addition, Jerome probably did not want to stay in the city
that preferred another as its bishop, so he left Rome forever
shortly after the new pope took office.
went first to Antioch, then to Alexandria before settling
in Bethlehem in the fall of 386. He was joined by several
women whom he had served as spiritual guide while in Rome.
Paula, one of these women, founded three convents of women
and one for men.
Jerome had been elected pope, his pastoral responsibilities
would have taken all his time and energy. After Jerome arrived
at Bethlehem, he began a most productive career as a translator
and commentator. He became convinced that producing a good
Latin translation required more than simply revising existing
the case of the Old Testament, Jerome decided that his translation
had to consider the Hebrew version of the books. He could
not rely on the Septuagint alone. This was not an easy
or popular decision. Christians accorded a high status to
the Septuagint. Many thought that this Greek version
of the Old Testament was itself inspired, making any reference
to the Hebrew version unnecessary. Jerome disagreed.
a time when there were conscious efforts to distance the Church
from its Jewish background, Jerome not only went to the Hebrew
Bible but also sought help with difficult texts from Jews.
In particular, Jerome acknowledged his debt to his Jewish
teachers for helping him with the Book of Job whose Hebrew
is difficult. Not all Jeromes fellow Christians appreciated
his efforts. They denigrated his translations as being tainted
Riots Over Jonah
Augustine was one of Jeromes opponents. He suggested
that, by basing his Latin translation on the Hebrew Bible
rather than on the Septuagint, Jerome was driving a
wedge between Christians of the East and West since the Greek-speaking
Christians of the East were still using the Septuagint.
illustrate the folly of Jeromes approach, Augustine
told him the tale of a bishop from Tripoli who authorized
Jeromes new translation for use in his church. When
the people heard the Old Testament lesson from Jonah, it was
so unfamiliar that they protested the bishops innovation
by rioting in the streets. Augustine saw this as proof that
Jeromes Hebrew version was a serious mistake.
not all Christians reacted as did Augustine and the people
of Tripoli, but it did take a long time before the Church
in the West became accustomed to Jeromes translation.
While no riots appear to have been caused in our century by
new translations, many people do feel uncomfortable and complain
when they hear familiar biblical stories rendered in unfamiliar
serious as these problems were, Jerome had to deal every day
with the practical difficulties of translation. One problem
was the character of Latin. In Jeromes day, it was a
fixed language that resisted new vocabulary. But Latin did
not have words that corresponded to some of the religious
language of the Bible. This required adopting Greek words
into Latin or forcing Latin words to bear new meanings. All
this made Jeromes translation sound strange to ears
accustomed to the older Latin versions.
familiar text like the Lords Prayer illustrates Jeromes
problems. The Greek word that is rendered as daily
in the phrase Give us this day our daily bread
is not the usual Greek word for daily. In fact, outside
the two occurrences in the Matthean and Lucan versions of
the Lords Prayer, that word occurs only once in all
of classical Greek literature. The older Latin versions translated
the Greek word as quotidianum (daily) in
believed this to be inaccurate so he attempted another rendering,
which he may have coined himself: supersubstantialem (Matthew
6:11). Not hesitating to change the wording of a text as familiar
as the Lords Prayer showed Jeromes courage. At
the same time, Jerome was flexible. In his translation of
Lukes version of the Lords Prayer, Jerome kept
quotidianum (Luke 11:3). In its liturgy, the Church
uses the Matthean version of the Lords Prayer though
it kept quotidianum, which is the basis of all English
translations of the prayer. Otherwise, we might be saying,
Give us this day our supersubstantial bread.
Wary of Word for Word
Jerome was an accomplished and careful translator, he was
not a dogmatic one. He translated idiom for idiom, and not
always word for word. For example, he produced at least three
translations of the psalms in his attempt to capture and illuminate
these prayers of the Church.
translation grated on the ears of contemporaries like Augustine
because Jeromes idea of translation differed from that
generally held in his day. Most translators of the Scripture
in the era before Jerome believed that the language of the
original must dominate the new language. In part, this attitude
reflected the belief that the smallest linguistic detail of
the biblical text was divinely inspired and had its particular
significance. The translator was expected to preserve this
by rendering the original as literally as possible.
believed that a good translator will give the new language
equal weight with the original and will try to make the translation
equivalent to the original not just in meaning but also in
quality of style. Any translation should reflect the new language
used at its bestthis Jerome learned from Cicero.
principle that Jerome used as he translated was not word
for word but sense for sense. Today the
type of translation that Jerome favored is called dynamic
equivalence and is found, for example, in The Liturgical
Psalter sponsored by the International Committee on English
in the Liturgy and published by Liturgical Training Publications
Jerome may have gotten his idea of what a translation should
be from his rhetorical training, he also found a precedent
for it in the Bible itself. He remarked on the looseness with
which Old Testament passages are cited in the New Testament.
Still, he noted that, while the words may differ, the meaning
does not. Jerome felt that he had backing from both Cicero
and the Bible for avoiding literalism in his translation of
the Old Testament.
Narrow Role in a Big Book
result of efforts to provide a new Latin translation of the
Bible is popularly known as the Vulgate, a word derived
from the Latin and meaning common or commonly
known. But Jerome was not responsible for the Vulgate
as it has come down to us. The only New Testament books he
worked on were the Gospels.
is natural to assume that, after completing his work on the
Gospels, Jerome would have then turned to the rest of the
New Testament, but there is little evidence that he did. After
he published his revision of the Old Latin Gospels, Jerome
turned to the Old Testament. In the course of 15 years of
work, Jerome translated all the books of the Hebrew Bible.
is a mistake to identify his work with the Vulgate
as it exists today. In Jeromes time, most manuscripts
of the Bible in Latin contained only a few booksnot
the entire Bible. Assembling manuscripts to make a complete
Bible usually meant bringing together manuscripts from a variety
of Latin translations. The Vulgate was created by assembling
books from a variety of sources, including Jerome. That is
how the rest of the New Testament became connected with his
is the case with any new translation, it took a while for
people to become accustomed to the new phraseology. They quickly
accepted his revision of the Gospels since it had a certain
official status. After all, the pope commissioned it. Also,
his work on the Gospels was conservative. He did not offer
a fresh translation but simply revised the Old Latin translations
that were already familiar to readers.
Back to the Beginnings
of the Old Testament was another matter. Jerome undertook
translating the Old Testament on his own initiative, so his
translation had to achieve acceptance on its own merits. If
Jerome had simply revised the Old Latin versions of the Old
Testament, his work would have enjoyed more popularity in
his lifetime, but Jerome presented an entirely new Latin translation
of the Old Testament based on the ancient Hebrew text.
preferred to base his translation of the Old Testament on
the Hebrew Bible with which most Christians were unfamiliar
rather than on the familiar Septuagintat least
through the medium of the Old Latin versions. This preference
affected not only his translation of Old Testament books but
also his view of the Old Testament canon.
Septuagint contained several books that are not in
the Hebrew Bible. The rabbis of Palestine did not regard as
inspired the books in the Septuagint that were not
also found in the Hebrew Bible. Eventually, all Jews accepted
this view and abandoned books like Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus
(Sirach), Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees.
view corresponded to that of the rabbis. He believed that,
while these extra books may edify Christian readers,
the Church should not use them as a source for doctrine. Again,
Augustine opposed Jerome. In this instance, Augustines
the Council of Trent opted for the wider canon probably because
the Reformers chose to accept only books of the Hebrew Bible.
That is why the Old Testament read by Catholics contains seven
more books than the Old Testament read by Protestant Christians.
Irascible Biblical Commentary
was more than a translator of the Bible. He was a gifted interpreter
as well. His major contribution was a series of commentaries
on the prophets. At first, Jerome followed the approach common
in his day. For example, his commentary on Obadiah was allegorical.
He ignored the historical dimensions of the prophets
words and focused on a spiritual interpretation that sought
to edify readers.
Jerome never completely abandoned allegorical interpretation,
his work as a translator led him to appreciate the historical
and literal approach more. He sought to understand the biblical
text in its original cultural and historical setting. Many
students of the Bible find Jeromes commentaries still
commentaries were not esoteric flights of scholarly fancy.
The irascible scholar sometimes used his role as a biblical
commentator to give his opinion on ecclesiastical controversies
of his day, some of which were occasioned by his work. His
comments sometimes use personal invective against his opponents
that, by todays standards, seems harsh and sarcastic.
example, Jerome had a running quarrel with another Christian
commentator named Rufinus. In the Preface to his translation
of the Book of Ezekiel, Jerome wrote of the recently deceased
Rufinus: Now that the scorpion lies buried....
He once described the heretic Pelagius as the most stupid
of persons whose wits were dulled by too much Scottish porridge.
did not even spare the biblical prophets. He remarked that
the quality of their rhetoric made his skin crawl. Reading
Jeromes commentaries and his 117 surviving letters leads
to the conclusion that Jerome loved a good argument.
Kind Toward His Friends
merciless and abusive as Jerome was toward his opponents,
he was gentle and kind toward his friends and the needy. Many
people sought his advice as they tried to live out their Christian
lives. He founded a school for boys at Bethlehem and served
as a spiritual guide for the monks and nuns who settled in
Bethlehem to be near him. He gave shelter to refugees who
came to the Holy Land following the sack of Rome by the Vandals
is also clear that Jerome had a great and abiding respect
for ecclesiastical authority. He spent some time in Antioch,
which at the time of his visit had three rival bishops. Jerome
asserted that he would accept the bishop in union with Rome.
All three professed loyalty to the See of St. Peter so Jerome
waited until the pope chose to support one of the three competing
bishops. Jerome accepted ordination to the priesthood from
Paulinus, the bishop that Rome approved.
was among the most learned Christians of his day. He put his
learning to the service of the Church and became the greatest
biblical scholar of the early Church. He has been considered
a Father of the Church since the eighth century and the Council
of Trent proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church. His writing
style was exceptional and he used it to offer the Church a
translation of the Old Testament that was the best available
to the Latin-speaking Christians of his day.
contradictions of his personality may be more apparent than
those of others whom the Church honors as saints. Still, no
one can read his commentaries without recognizing that the
Bible was not simply an interesting literary work but the
source of Spirit and life for Jerome.
Jerome help those who are looking for a good translation of
the Bible? Jerome would, of course, expect those who preach
and teach the Bible to read it in the original Hebrew, Aramaic
and Greek as he did. For those who cannot do this, but still
want to engage in serious study, he would suggest a literal
translation such as found in the Revised Standard Version
and the New American Bible.
would also favor a translation that used the method of dynamic
equivalence like The Liturgical Psalter of the
International Committee on English in the Liturgy since it
seeks to render the psalms sense for sense rather
than word for word. This makes the psalms more
accessible to those who wish to pray them today.
Jerome would know exactly what the translators of the New
American Bible psalter are going through. It is almost
five years since the American bishops asked that this psalter
be approved by Rome for use in the liturgy. Approval has still
not come. Jeromes translation did not achieve wide acceptance
in the Church until centuries after his death.
is no other person who has had greater influence on the way
Catholics read the Bible than St. Jerome. He had worried that
his influence would be restricted to aesthetics rather than
to faith. His worries were groundless because Jerome was a
sincere believer who used his talent and education to help
other believers find, as he did, that the Scriptures are the
Word of Godthe word of life.
Priest and Doctor
Most of the saints are remembered for some outstanding virtue or devotion which they practiced, but Jerome is remembered too frequently for his bad temper! It is true that he had a very bad temper and could use a vitriolic pen, but his love for God and his Son Jesus Christ was extraordinarily intense; anyone who taught error was an enemy of God and truth, and St. Jerome went after him or her with his mighty and sometimes sarcastic pen.
He was above all a Scripture scholar, translating the Old Testament from the Greek. He also wrote commentaries which are a great source of scriptural inspiration for us today. He was an avid student, a thorough scholar, a prodigious letter-writer and a consultant to monk, bishop and pope. St. Augustine said of him, What Jerome is ignorant of, no mortal has ever known.
[Jerome] traveled extensively in Palestine, marking each spot of Christs life with an outpouring of devotion. Mystic that he was, he spent five years in the desert of Chalcis so that he might give himself up to prayer, penance and study. Finally he settled in Bethlehem where he lived in the cave believed to have been the birthplace of Christ.
On September 30, 420, Jerome died in Bethlehem. [His feast is now celebrated on September 30.]
excerpted from Saint
of the Day,
revised edition, published by
St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001
J. Hoppe, a Franciscan friar of the Assumption Province, has
been Professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological
Union in Chicago since 1981. Father Hoppe holds a Ph.D. in religion
from Northwestern University and is a member of the editorial
boards of The
Bible Today and Old Testament Abstracts. He is the
author of six books, and his articles have appeared in both
scholarly and popular magazines. He is currently writing A
Retreat With St. Luke for St. Anthony Messenger Press.