Augustine and Jerome in Letters

In one of Augustine’s letters to Jerome (XXVIII), Augustine covers a variety of points on which he would like Jerome’s opinion/response. Augustine deals with the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin, translation of Origen’s works (though Origen is not named),  and the Galatians controversy.

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin had already occurred long before Jerome and Augustine. Jerome’s vulgate was an attempt to create a better translation, drawing upon the vetus latina, the Septuagint, and the Hebrew Bible.  He had, however, drawn criticism for using the Hebrew manuscripts.  Augustine tells Jerome that he wishes for him to use the same methods he had used in his translation of Job, namely to apply signals and symbols wherein Jerome’s translation is at odds with the Septuagint, whose authority is most weighty (ut signis adhibitis, quid inter hanc tuam et LXX, quorum est gravissima auctoritas, interpretationem distet). This is not because Augustine is concerned with textual criticism, but because he wants Jerome to be convicted as to how wrong some of his translation work is. In another letter (LXXXII), Augustine tells the story of a Bishop who is almost run out of his congregation because of reading Jerome’s translation of Jonah at the point where Jonah is covered by the shade of a plant. Jerome’s translation reads “hedera” or “ivy”, whereas the congregation was used to hearing “curcurbita” or “gourd.”  Obviously this doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, but for Augustine it’s quite serious as it caused an uproar in this congregation. Jerome writes to Augustine to give a defense of his choice of word, citing both his philological prowess and his experience with the plant (CXII).

The Galatians controversy is another interesting issue. Some exegetes in the early Church were uncomfortable with the idea of Paul actually rebuking Peter (Cephas) in Galatians 2. It was used to discredit Paul or Peter amongst heretical sects who wanted to do away with one or the other. Clement of Alexandria comes up with the idea that Cephas is another Cephas and not Peter, son of Jonah. This is possible, but unlikely. Origen however comes up with another theory: Paul and Peter planned this as an act in order to show the Judaizers were wrong. Jerome had adopted this explanation in his commentary on Galatians and Augustine is “grieved” because it violates the double precept, which is the guiding rule in Augustine’s hermeneutic. If one is to admit any falsehood into Scripture, what keeps heretics from saying anything that displeases them is a lie? Augustine asks about Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 4.1-3 concerning the forbidding of marriage. “What shall we say, when perverse men arise, forbidding marriage…declaring that all that he said about strengthening of marriage was a lie…?” (XXVIII).  He also uses Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15.14-15 concerning the resurrection of Christ. Augustine asks if someone were to ask Paul, essentially, “So what if it’s not true, doesn’t it resound the glory of God?” would not Paul correct them? Then Augustine gets Jerome with another statement undoubtedly meant to convict him: “Sed hoc intellegentiae relinquo tuae. Admota enim lectioni diligentiore consideratione, multo id fortasse facilius videbis quam ego” that is, “But I leave this matter to your own intelligence. For by the application of diligent consideration to reading, perhaps you will be able to it with even greater ease than I.” In other words, “Through diligent consideration, you may end up agreeing with me and agreeing with me more than I agree with myself.”  Then another slammer, “…nisi forte regulas quasdam daturus es, quibus noverimus ubi oporteat mentiri et ubi non oporteat” or “unless by chance you can provide some rules by which we might know when it is right to deceive and when it is not right.”

This is just a snippet of the correspondence between Augustine and Jerome. It’s a fascinating piece of history. In fact, both Jerome’s and Augustine’s letters both provide interesting insights into the world of late ancient Christianity. There are many translations available if Latin isn’t your gig and I would suggest reading them.

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