Tag Archives: Augustine

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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Is Augustine making a joke?

I think there’s a joke in Augustine’s Enarratio in Psalmum 52, but I may just be reading something into the text that isn’t there. After discussing the heading of the Psalm (IN FINEM, PRO MAELETH, INTELLECTUS IPSI DAVID), and etymologizing Maeleth to mean parturiens and dolitus, Augustine goes on to explain that it is Christ about whom the heading of the Psalm, and especially Pro Maeleth, speaks.

He then explains that it is through the members of the body of Christ that Christ Himself suffers here on earth (Christus hic parturit, Christus hic dolet) and then says what I think is the joke: caput est sursum, membra deorsum = the head is above, the members below. The joke of it is: Augustine is preaching thus far from the heading (caput) of a chapter of the Psalms and has yet to get into the body of the text (membra). It’s a lame joke if it’s a joke at all, but I think it’s there.

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Augustine, the Manichees, and providing a ready defense

In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells us about the Manichees and their inability to answer a man named Elpidius.

Even before I left Carthage, I had listened to the speeches of a man named Elpidius, who used to join in open controversy with the Manichees, and I had been impressed when he put foward arguments from Scripture which were not easy to demolish. I thought that the Manichees’ answer was weak and, in fact, they were chary of giving it in public and only mentioned it in private to adherents of the sect. They claimed that the books of the New Testament had been tampered with by unnamed persons who wished to impose the Jewish law upon the Christian faith, but they could produce no uncorrupted copies. (V, 11, R.S. Pine-Coffin’s translation)

This passage piques my interest for a couple of reasons. For one, I too am guilty of “preaching to the choir” instead of “providing a ready defense to all who ask” on more questions than I can remember. It’s easy to surround oneself with people who are likeminded and all pat each other on the back.

Secondly, this interests me because of my interests in the transmission of the New Testament. Augustine suggests that the Manichees could find no copies of the Scriptures that were “uncorrupted”. One would imagine the Manichees could have altered some of the NT documents to suit their needs – I wonder why they didn’t.

Third, this passage is interesting because it convinces me even more that Ecclesiastes is right – there is nothing new under the sun. Studying Church history is interesting in that so many things seem to repeat itself. So many expressions of Christianity that arose in antiquity find themselves in modernity, just under new names. Arguments used by the ancients are used by moderns.


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