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Augustine and Jerome wrote several epistles to one another. In these epistles, how did Augustine feel about Jerome producing the Latin Vulgate? What were his concerns?

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2 Answers 2

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Short Answer:
In the least, Augustine did not approve of Jerome's preferred translation of the Septuagint (he actually penned two, at least in part), specifically. At most he may have thought it a sin to even use it as scripture. His greatest fear is that it would lead to apparent discrepancies in opinion between Latin and Greek churches and grievously harm church unity. He did not object to a translation in general (in fact he very much wanted one), but to the source that Jerome choose, the Hebrew versions, instead of the Greek versions.

In a letter from Augustine to Jerome:

I beseech you not to devote your labour to the work of translating into Latin the sacred canonical books, unless you follow the method in which you have translated Job [which was by the Greek texts].

Some of the other translations Jerome provided where acceptable to Augustine. He even said this to Jerome in that same letter, which largely criticized the translation of the Septuagint:

At the same time, we are in no small measure thankful to God for the work in which you have translated the Gospels from the original Greek, because in almost every passage we have found nothing to object to, when we compared it with the Greek Scriptures.

Despite Augustine's passionate objection, Jerome's translation of the Septuagint from the Hebrew texts is today heralded as his best work and among many protestants (and somewhat Catholics) one of the best translations of the Old Testament.

Long Answer:
The issue that Augustine had with Jerome's translation was with his source material and was most definitely not about Jerome's ability. In fact, Augustine regularly praised Jerome's work.

But concerning news that Jerome was using the Hebrew versions of the text instead of the Greek for the translation, Augustine once stated in a letter to Jerome in AD 394:

I beseech you not to devote your labour to the work of translating into Latin the sacred canonical books, unless you follow the method in which you have translated Job, viz. with the addition of notes, to let it be seen plainly what differences there are between this version of yours and that of the Septuagint, whose authority is worthy of highest esteem. For my own part, I cannot sufficiently express my wonder that anything should at this date be found in the Hebrew manuscripts which escaped so many translators perfectly acquainted with the language.

Augustine thought it a waste of Jerome's efforts and ability to translate the Septuagint using the Hebrew texts available, believing that the Greek version was Divinely inspired. Using strong language, Augustine urges Jerome to use the same method for translating Job, which he approved of, which was to use the Greek and not the Hebrew text because the Greek was Divinely inspired in his opinion.

Jerome did not heed Augustine's advice, believing that the Hebrew was actually more accurate to the original text. He voiced his objection again to Jerome using the Hebrew in another letter in AD 403, although, he did praise the exhaustiveness of the work, but challenged the motive for the asterisks and obelisks in the translation. See the quote below:

I have since heard that you have translated Job out of the original Hebrew, although in your own translation of the same prophet from the Greek tongue we had already a version of that book. In that earlier version you marked with asterisks the words found in the Hebrew but wanting in the Greek, and with obelisks the words found in the Greek but wanting in the Hebrew; and this was done with such astonishing exactness, that in some places we have every word distinguished by a separate asterisk, as a sign that these words are in the Hebrew, but not in the Greek. Now, however, in this more recent version from the Hebrew, there is not the same scrupulous fidelity as to the words; and it perplexes any thoughtful reader to understand either what was the reason for marking the asterisks in the former version with so much care that they indicate the absence from the Greek version of even the smallest grammatical particles which have not been rendered from the Hebrew, or what is the reason for so much less care having been taken in this recent version from the Hebrew to secure that these same particles be found in their own places.

Augustine goes on in the letter, reveling his biggest concern with the source material chosen was a matter of Church unity. He feared that the Latin churches would have scripture that was too different than the Greek churches, which might lead to arguments and schism. He favored the Greek texts, on a logical basis, because it was already wide spread.

For my part, I would much rather that you would furnish us with a translation of the Greek version ... For 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, especially seeing that the discrepancy is easily condemned in a Latin version by the production of the original in Greek, which is a language very widely known; whereas, if any one has been disturbed by the occurrence of something to which he was not accustomed in the translation taken from the Hebrew, and alleges that the new translation is wrong, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to get at the Hebrew documents by which the version to which exception is taken may be defended.

Augustine even discusses a certain bishop who 'narrowly escaped' a 'calamity' where he might have lost his congregation forcing the bishop to 'correct [Jerome's] version in that passage as if it had been falsely translated.' Augustine's concern for Church unity and reduced confusion is summed up thusly:

You would therefore confer upon us a much greater boon if you gave an exact Latin translation of the Greek Septuagint version: for the variations found in the different codices of the Latin text are intolerably numerous; and it is so justly open to suspicion as possibly different from what is to be found in the Greek, that one has no confidence in either quoting it or proving anything by its help.

Jerome, however, did not respond favorably and was even somewhat hostile to Augustine's reasoning, which required that Church unity be more important than the exactness of the translation to the original writings. His letter to Augustine in AD 404 states:

you ask why a former translation which I made of some of the canonical books was carefully marked with asterisks and obelisks, whereas I afterwards published a translation without these. You must pardon my saying that you seem to me not to understand the matter: for the former translation is from the Septuagint; and wherever obelisks are placed, they are designed to indicate that the Seventy have said more than is found in the Hebrew. But the asterisks indicate what has been added by Origen from the version of Theodotion. In that version I was translating from the Greek: but in the later version, translating from the Hebrew itself, I have expressed what I understood it to mean, being careful to preserve rather the exact sense than the order of the words. I am surprised that you do not read the books of the Seventy translators in the genuine form in which they were originally given to the world, but as they have been corrected, or rather corrupted, by Origen, with his obelisks and asterisks; and that you refuse to follow the translation, however feeble, which has been given by a Christian man, especially seeing that Origen borrowed the things which he has added from the edition of a man who, after the passion of Christ, was a Jew and a blasphemer. Do you wish to be a true admirer and partisan of the Seventy translators? Then do not read what you find under the asterisks; rather erase them from the volumes, that you may approve yourself indeed a follower of the ancients. If, however, you do this, you will be compelled to find fault with all the libraries of the Churches; for you will scarcely find more than one manuscript here and there which has not these interpolations.

In AD 405 Augustine replied with the same argument and begged Jerome to deliver the translation to him so that it may not be used in any authoritative church gathering. As far as historians know, Jerome did not respond and continued with the translation.


SOURCES (In order of use)
A selection of the letters between Jerome and Augustine
Septuagint Wikipedia Article - Section on Christian use of
Jerome Wikipedia Article - Section on Translations and Commentaries
Jerome Wikipedia Article - General Reference

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I'm not sure why I would receive a downvote here and not given the courtesy of an explanation. –  fredsbend Mar 2 at 1:14

tl;dr:

Augustine: "Hey Jerome, please don't translate from a source if people can't verify your translation! The internet hasn't been invented yet."

St Augustine wasn't too happy about it. In fact, he was seriously concerned it might damage the credibility of the Latin church and Jerome, who he liked (that appears not to have been mutual).

Short Version:

Augustine seems to desire Jerome not to do his translation in the manner he is doing it because it will be infeasible for the Church to make informed decisions as to its veracity since only a handful of respected Church Fathers spoke Hebrew and even fewer could read Aramaic, leaving the interpretation of key works in the hands of a tiny group of translators. Augustine approved of rendering a new translation from the Hebrew with extensive documentation of its differences from the Septinguint and reasons for those differences, or in doing so once more of the population spoke Hebrew (which he advocated the learning of but would ultimately be unsuccessful in popularizing). Augustine had great faith in "The Seventy", the translators of the Septuagint, where Jerome had somewhat less faith. Augustine was always very polite in his discussion with Jerome, even when Jerome's letters might be described as hostile. This may be just because Augustine was more of a polite person in discourse, even when he endeavored to insult people, rather than an indication of genuine friendliness.

Long version:

In those times, it was much more difficult to obtain original-language manuscripts, and much more difficult to find people who were competent enough to analyze them (as St Jerome was).

Translation necessarily involves at least some change in meaning, and both men recognized that this was just a consequence of translation. We acknowledge this ourselves today when we say "well, let's just look at what the word meant in the original language".

St Augustine seems to have been worried that, in cases where such discrepancies between translations would be subjected to close examination, a schism might result over something minor because "just looking at the original language" simply wasn't an option in those times, since (to both men's chagrin) practically no one educated spoke Hebrew. This was a very legitimate practical concern. St Augustine would surely have been livid at the idea of changing the meaning of any biblical text for the sake of unity.

For my part, I would much rather that you would furnish us with a translation of the Greek version ... For 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, especially seeing that the discrepancy is easily condemned in a Latin version by the production of the original in Greek, which is a language very widely known; whereas, if any one has been disturbed by the occurrence of something to which he was not accustomed in the translation taken from the Hebrew, and alleges that the new translation is wrong, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to get at the Hebrew documents by which the version to which exception is taken may be defended.

Augustine wanted a Latin translation, he wanted the Bible to be made accessible, but being true to scripture was much more important. Jerome's use of a Hebrew source when most of the Church Fathers couldn't read Hebrew seemed suspect to him because if someone claimed to have found an error in Jerome's translation it would be hard to prove either side correct, which would result in schism. Furthermore, Augustine was disgusted with most Latin translations of the Greek texts, and wanted Jerome to do more work in that area because he thought Jerome's translation work was superb.

Augustine also had a lot more respect for the original translators of the Bible. Jerome thought that since so few people had translated the original Hebrew there were probably a fair number of errors. Augustine agreed that this might be the case, but thought that such errors would not be on any material of importance and, furthermore, the previous Hebrew->Greek translators ('The Seventy") met with his standards of accuracy while the bulk of the current Greek->Latin translators did not. Indeed, Augustine seems to assume that Latin translations from the Greek would be rapidly pointed out as wrong as a matter of course, because the Greek manuscripts were readily available.

Jerome seems to have become somewhat upset with Augustine upon learning that Augustine regarded the Septuagint positively. Jerome thought it was the work of dirty Jews made worse by the work of a particular contemporary Jew named Theodotion. Jerome didn't like Jews much.

...you ask why a former translation which I made of some of the canonical books was carefully marked with asterisks and obelisks, whereas I afterwards published a translation without these. You must pardon my saying that you seem to me not to understand the matter: for the former translation is from the Septuagint; and wherever obelisks are placed, they are designed to indicate that the Seventy have said more than is found in the Hebrew. But the asterisks indicate what has been added by Origen from the version of Theodotion. In that version I was translating from the Greek: but in the later version, translating from the Hebrew itself, I have expressed what I understood it to mean, being careful to preserve rather the exact sense than the order of the words. I am surprised that you do not read the books of the Seventy translators in the genuine form in which they were originally given to the world, but as they have been corrected, or rather corrupted, by Origen, with his obelisks and asterisks; and that you refuse to follow the translation, however feeble, which has been given by a Christian man, especially seeing that Origen borrowed the things which he has added from the edition of a man who, after the passion of Christ, was a Jew and a blasphemer. Do you wish to be a true admirer and partisan of the Seventy translators? Then do not read what you find under the asterisks; rather erase them from the volumes, that you may approve yourself indeed a follower of the ancients. If, however, you do this, you will be compelled to find fault with all the libraries of the Churches; for you will scarcely find more than one manuscript here and there which has not these interpolations.

I have omitted some of the other arguments between the two, which you can read about here or elsewhere, but they tend to all express the same kinds of dynamic on the part of Augustine.

Credit to Alypius's answer here for the basis for much of this post.

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I don't know how you can continuously claim along with others that Augustine did not regard unity as more important than fidelity to the scriptures. Notice that Augustine never once objects to Jerome's reasoning [that the greek is lacking] instead he just repeats "But the Greek is already everywhere. You don't want a schism do you?" –  fredsbend Mar 2 at 1:57
    
From your own answer: Jerome's use of a Hebrew source when most of the Church Fathers couldn't read Hebrew seemed suspect to [Augustine] because if someone claimed to have found an error in Jerome's translation it would be hard to prove either side correct, which would result in schism. Just like Augustine, this shows a total disregard for the fact that the Greek was lacking over the Hebrew and shows a worry over schism as more important that using the best manuscripts for translation. I won't downvote because your answer is not wrong, per se, but it is incomplete. –  fredsbend Mar 2 at 1:57
    
I don think you need to make a better case for this: Augustine wanted a Latin translation, he wanted the Bible to be made accessible, but being true to scripture was much more important. Whether you use these letters or another of Augustine's writings, it would be beneficial to your argument. But from the letters exclusively, you will be hard pressed to show that's what Augustine was thinking. –  fredsbend Mar 2 at 2:04

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