The Story of Jerome’s Vulgate

Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, or “Jerome,” is likely the most significant Biblical translator in history. He was born in northeast Italy in 345, and by the time he was 29, Jerome had become a devout and ascetic Christian. He claims to have had a dream chastising him for being a follower of Cicero, not of Christ. Following this dream, he left his home to live alone in the Syrian desert, reading and translating the Hebrew scriptures. When he returned to civilization, Jerome was the greatest translator of his epoch. In 382, he became administrative secretary to Pope Damasus. (Pictured left is an 8th century version of the Vulgate, the Gospel According to John). In Jerome’s day, Greek was widely spoken and read in texts. All the Biblical texts could be read in Greek. There were varying translations available of Coptic and Syriac and others, many of which were varying in content. Aware of this problem, Jerome wrote to the Pope requesting the opportunity to produce an authoritative text. A similar problem arose many hundreds of years later during the creation of the King James Bible -the need for authority.

The Pope responded in 382 by commissioning Jerome to compose the masterful “Vulgate,” The editio vulgata or “common version.” First, he translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, and then began translating the Psalms, Job, and several other texts from the Old Testament into Latin from the Greek Septuagint. However, he soon became aware of the Septuagint’s failings, so he endeavored to translate the Old Testament directly from the original Hebrew manuscripts. He completed this massive undertaking in about 405, and his translations of the Psalms from the Septuagint (the so-called “Gallic Psalter”) was widely praised and continued to be used for years alongside his original Latin translations. The Vulgate was Jerome’s great accomplishment.

For the next one thousand years, Jerome’s authoritative Latin compendium was edited, revised, and superseded numerous times throughout Europe. It was not until the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546 that the Vulgate was decreed the authoritative text for the Church. In 1965, at the second Vatican Council, a commission was established to revise the Vulgate. The Psalters were widely read and distributed among Christian households, and they were turned into contemporary hymns and songs.

Jerome died around 420, and he was later made a Saint by the Catholic Church. His Feast Day is September 30.

Here is a wonderful example of a Latin ‘Gallican Psalter’ by Jerome. Although he later discarded his translations from the Greek Septuagint as being inaccurate, they are nevertheless powerful. This is Psalm 23 (verses 1-4), in both Jerome’s Gallic Psalter Latin translation, alongside the beautiful King James translation. This is one of my favorite Psalms:

Jerome’s Gallic Psalter of Psalm 23
“[1] canticum David Dominus pascit me nihil mihi deerit. [2] in pascuis herbarum adclinavit me super aquas refectionis enutrivit me. [3] animam meam refecit duxit me per semitas iustitiae propter nomen suum [4] sed et si ambulavero in valle mortis non timebo malum quoniam tu mecum es virga tua et baculus tuus ipsa consolabuntur me.”

King James Translation of Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Susanna: An Apocryphal Fable

The Story of Susanna is a beautiful but brief tale of a virtuous woman, Susanna, who is wrongly accused of infidelity by two lustful men. She has been raised in a family that follows the laws of Moses. She is reportedly very beautiful, which is why two old men spy on her each day. One day, she goes to bathe in her garden, and the old judges spring out of their hiding place and blackmail her. They demand that Susanna have sex with them, or else they will accuse her of lying with another man, and the council will trust their opinion as judges. Susanna rejects them, trusting that the Lord will watch over her.

“Susanna and the Elders” by Guido Reni (1620-1625)

At her trial, Susanna is condemned to death by the council at the recommendation of the lecherous, old judges, however the Lord hears her cries. Why does God hear Susanna? Perhaps because she is virtuous and was raised in a God-fearing household. If so, then virtue is the catalyst which allows God to hear some people, and not others. In response, God raises up a young Daniel in Susanna’s defense. He separates the two old men, and when separately questioned, they give differing accounts of a tree under which the alleged activities took place (there is a clever Greek pun on the different trees in the Septuagint). Thus their accusation is ruined, and they are put to death, while Susanna and her family praise the Lord.

This is the story of how Daniel rose up to become a spiritual and ethical leader among the Israelites, prior to his captivity in Babylon and his famous story of interpreting the King’s dreams. It is a story of justice as vengeance. Exoterically, the plot is a fable, reaffirming the moral teaching that faith can provide, even in the most dire circumstances. Faith is rewarding to those who decide to act in a virtuous way, and in fact, faith can even punish enemies. What would have happened had Susanna decided to sleep with the two old judges? In the eyes of God she would have sinned, or disobeyed a divine law, while following the law of her particular nation (at least in the eyes of the judges). Thus, the true theological devotee is in a perpetual conflict between the laws of man and the laws of God. Virtue, as taught in the writings of theology, is reserved for those who follow divine laws. But surely humans would not follow the laws of God unless there were strong incentives to do so, such as the promise of life without death in heaven (as Christianity teaches) or the chance that the Lord will listen in times of suffering and save you -a deux ex machina, or perhaps ‘God out of the machine.’ What would happen if the Susanna fable ended in Susanna being wrongly condemned to death? There would be no redemption, and thus little incentive for readers and listeners to follow the teachings of God and Moses. It would simply be a tragedy, not a fable. Only in the promise of potential redemption (or freedom from injustice and suffering) can we see and hear the theological teaching of Susanna.

The Susanna story is considered apocryphal since it was not found in the Hebrew Tanakh. It is also absent of the Septuagint (though apparently included in early versions) and Jerome removed it from the Latin Vulgate. Today, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles have included Susanna with the book of Daniel.

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

The Unremarkable Able McLaughlins

I finally finished the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on my list after dragging my feet for much of the summer. It is altogether difficult to go from reading the beautiful rolling novels of the great American pioneer writer, Willa Cather, to the bland landscapes of Margaret Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Able McLaughlins.

The problem with Wilson’s novel is that it overtly attempts to impart a moral lesson of redemption and forgiveness on its readers. It attempts to encourage those with strength to take pity on those who are suffering. However, the reader is the one who winds up suffering due to a lack of connection with any of the characters in the novel. The Able McLaughlins drags on until a wildly anticlimactic ending leaves the reader confused and unsatisfied.


The book is about Scottish immigrants who settle on the Iowa prairie around the time of the Civil War (an event which unfortunately bears little mark on the story). Wully McLaughlin returns home to his family’s farm from the war to spend one golden evening with his love interest, Chirstie McNair -a mostly unremarkable woman, who is reportedly very beautiful and highly emotional. Wully and Chirstie swear to commit to one another, but then Wully is called back to the war. He returns again a short time later, this time for good. He immediately visits Chirstie’s home only to find her changed -she is now distant and aloof to his advances. He eventually discovers she has been raped and impregnated by their cousin, Peter Keith. In a rage, Wully goes after Peter Keith and threatens to kill him if he ever returns again. Peter Keith runs away.

Years pass. Wully and Chirstie have gotten married and Wully has claimed responsibility for the child. He bears the public shame for the child’s early birth, sparing Chirstie the scandal, but soon many in the tight-knit Iowa farming community discover the truth. Wully and Chirstie build a home and a farm together, and one day Peter Keith returns and tries to grab Chirstie while she is alone in the house. In the course of the scuffle he quickly flees when she screams. Wully later learns that Chirstie shot Peter Keith in the foot. Wully and a group of men grab their guns and hunt for Peter Keith out on the prairie. This scene is set in a long and suspenseful scene in which the reader desperately longs for bloodlust -to see Wully violently punish Peter Keith for his misdeeds. However, Peter Keith is never found. One day, Wully and Chirstie are in town conducting business, and Wully happens to find Peter Keith lying alone, unconscious, and suffering in a hay stable with a hemorrhage. Wully decides to leave him, but Chirstie begs him to return and do the right thing. They tie up Peter Keith and bring him to his mother’s farm to die. In the end, Wully has a sudden and unexpected change of heart. He decides to help Peter Keith in his passing. Somehow, after years of hatred, Wully inexplicably finds forgiveness. In the closing lines of the novel, Wully shockingly mentions how he may even go to find a pillow for Peter Keith -an abrupt and confusing conclusion to an anticlimactic novel. In all the preceding chapters, Wully has gone into a frenzied rage at the mere mention of Peter Keith’s name, only to let it all dissipate in the end. The vengeance which we so desperately seek, and for which we braced so tightly in anticipation, sadly never arrives.

However some praise for The Able McLaughlins is in order. The novel delivers what has been called an accurate portrayal of the fervent Presbyterianism of prairie immigrants. So, I suppose that is something worthy of consideration. Apparently the initial recommendation from the novel jury to the Pulitzer Board was that no novel for the year 1923-1924 was “outstanding enough to merit a prize this year.” They even considered nominating Willa Cather for the second time (and I wish they had). Eventually the committee noted that “if it is deemed that a prize should be awarded anyhow, the committee would name “Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.” A follow-up statement was issued with assurances that they would avoid the same type of scandal that occurred in 1921 when Sinclair Lewis was denied the Pulitzer, and the Novel Jury took their frustration to the newspapers. Much of the early years of the Pulitzer were spent trying to avoid controversy, in an effort not to besmirch the name of the committee, the university, or Mr. Pulitzer’s name.

About The 1923 Pulitzer Prize Decision
Published in 1923, Wilson’s novel won the coveted Pulitzer in 1924. The 1924 Novel Jury was composed of returning members: Jefferson B. Fletcher, Samuel Crothers, and Bliss Perry. The Able McLaughlins was Wilson’s first, and most notable, novel. Today, The Able McLaughlins is a difficult book to track down, having been out of print for many years. Luckily, having access to a strong inter-library loan program was the only way I was able to get my hands on this one.

Who Is Margaret Wilson?
Margaret Wilson (1882-1973) grew up on a farm in Iowa. She graduated from the University of Chicago before pursuing missionary work in India during the early 1900s. She later returned to the United States to become a teacher and to care for her invalid father. During that time she built a reputation for serializing short stories in the Atlantic Monthly. Two central themes found throughout much of her writing include the redemption offered through faith and forgiveness, and this is evident in the conclusion of The Able McLaughlins in which revenge is not exacted by Wully. The other chief theme found in her writing is the unique suffering faced by women. In 1923, the same year her first novel The Able McLaughlins was published, Wilson married a Scotsman tutor at Oxford. She wrote several adult novels, some focused on her experiences in India, and one book for children. Her last book, published in 1936, was a sequel to her debut Pulitzer-Prize winning book, entitled The Law and the McLaughlins. Grahame Greene once wrote a notably favorable review of the book.

Here are two passages from the novel that struck me as I was reading:

“The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element. One might have walked for hours without hearing anything louder than high white clouds casting shadows over the distances, or the tall slough grass bending lazily into waves” -opening lines.

“They were happy as the summer wore on, the three of them working from the first streak of dawn to the frog-croaking darkness. The stars in their courses and the clouds in their flights seemed to be working with them that season. Week after week, just as the ground grew ready for it, they watched the desired clouds roll up in great hills against the sky, and pour down long, slow, soaking rains. They watched the sun grow more and more stimulatingly warm, and then, just when their corn needed it, grow fiercely hot in its coaxing. They worked like slaves, of course. But then, they had always worked like slaves…Wheat and corn had surely never grown better than theirs did that year. To John, now, a field of wheat was a field of wheat, capable of being sold for so many dollars. To Wully, as to his father, there was first always, to be sure, the promise of money in growing grain, and he needed money. But besides that, there was more in it than perhaps anyone can say – certainly more than he ever said – all that keeps farm-minded men farming. It was the perfect symbol of rewarded, lavish labor, of requited love and care, of creating power, of wifely faithfulness, of the flower and fruit of life, its beauty, its ecstasy. Wully was too essentially a farmer to ever try to express his deep satisfaction in words. But when he saw his own wheat strong and green, swaying in the breezes, flushed with just the first signs of ripening, the sight made him begin whistling. And when, working to exhaustion, he saw row after row of corn, hoed by his own hands, standing forth unchoked by weeds, free to eat and grow like happy children, even though he was too tired to walk erectly, something within him – maybe his heart – danced with joy. Therefore he was then, as almost always, to be reckoned among the fortunate of the earth, one of those who know ungrudged contented exhaustion” (Chapter XIII, p. 170-172).

Wilson, Margaret. The Able McLaughlins. Atlanta, Ga., Cherokee Pub. Co., 1951.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Socrates Ridiculed in the Clouds

The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC at the Dionysia, is Aristophanes’s masterpiece despite receiving a mere third place at the Dionysia festival. Aristophanes’s earlier plays had all been a string of successes. There is a rumor that, in anger at his loss over the Clouds, Aristophanes edited the original manuscript. This is referenced in the play’s first parabasis. We cannot know how much of our inherited play has been revised. Nevertheless, his comedy remains a hilarious satire of Socrates, and of the decadent Athenian enlightenment in ancient Athens. The Clouds is one of a very few contemporaneous artistic portrayals of Socrates in Western literature.

In the play, Aristophanes presents Socrates as saying and doing many laughable things. Socrates becomes a laughingstock, not unlike the story of Thales as presented in Plato’s Theaetetus –a story about the philosopher Thales being so practically inept and so focused on the ethereal questions that he trips and falls straight down a well. Similarly, Socrates runs a useless school primarily for young men to learn irrelevant facts about fleas and clouds and so on. He openly preaches atheism, replacing the gods with the clouds. His teachings, mirroring the sophists, praise injustice over justice – illicit private profiteering over civic virtue.

However, Socrates is merely a symptom of a broader Athenian decay. The cause of the action in the play is Strepsiades’s indebtedness. Why is he in debt? Because his long-haired son, Pheidippides, has a passion for expensive horse racing. The new generation in Athens lives a kind of hedonistic lifestyle, while the old generation of merchants supports it. This whole scene is taking place within the context of the Peloponnesian War, a foreign war that appears largely irrelevant to the main characters in the play. Within this context, Socrates appears silly, unproductive, and perhaps even counterproductive. Aristophanes, the comic poet, represents the voice of the demos, in its blame of Socrates for the ills that have befallen Athens, a charge which Socrates notes in Plato’s Apologia.

In typical Aristophanes fashion, the Clouds celebrates the pain-loving antiquarianism embraced by many conservatives, then and now. Aristophanes looks to a time-gone-by, a golden age of noble Marathon fighters, to judge his present-day woes. He is in love with a painting of the past, in which things seemed to be simpler and easier, superior. He is blinded by his ideological allegiances, and unlike Socrates, he is dependent on the applause of the crowd. As we see in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes is also a contemporary and, to some degree, a student of Socrates, though he has trouble keeping up with Socrates’s claims regarding comic and tragic poets (recall the concluding lines of the Symposium). Perhaps, as Leo Strauss inquires, Aristophanes is capable only of embracing certain teachings from Socrates. The issues facing Athens – indebtedness, mounting war losses, extravagance, the public pursuit of injustice – come from a certain disharmony in the city, Socrates merely becomes the scapegoat of the city’s troubles.

The Clouds tells the story of Strepsiades (a reference to the Greek words for “tossing and turning), an old member of the Athenian gentry whose son, Pheidippides (a harmony of the Greek words for “thrifty” and “horse”) has become indebted and listless, as a result of his passion for horse-racing. He is long-haired and ignorant of practical matters. Horse-racing was one of the novelties promised to Socrates by the men in the Piraeus during the festival of Bendis, as detailed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.

Regarding the issue of indebtedness, recall in Plato’s Republic the importance placed on ‘paying one’s debts’ and also Socrates’s final words to pay his debt to Asclepius. The unjust person lacks a certain degree of balance, or harmony in the soul. Indebtedness is a tangible, numerical way to account for a man’s imbalance.

Interestingly, Socrates’s Thinkery and sophism are not the cause of the old generation’s woes. Instead it is the new generation who is causing debt, and this causes the older generation to look for a superior argument, regardless of justice, to escape debt. Thus sophism is a symptom not a cause of Athenian amorality.

Strepsiades tries to convince his son to go to the Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn of an argument – either the Better or the Worse argument – to help him talk his way out of debt as a result of the son’s expensive habits. Pheidipides declines and flees to go to his rich uncle, so Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery himself and he is exposed to their absurd mystery-cult. The pupils are busy deep in thought regarding the question of how many of its own feet a flea can jump (135), among other absurd and vulgar activities. He discovers Socrates in a wicker basket ‘treading the air and contemplating the sun,’ praising the clouds as gods. Strepsiades attempts to learn Socrates’s apparently nonsensical teachings and he lives with the cult at the Thinkery in a bed filled with bedbugs. He returns to his son and convinces him to go to the Thinkery, as well.

Then the Better and the Worse arguments debate one another – the Better argument states that justice exists among the gods, and the Worse argument claims that justice does not exist. Pheidipides emerges as the pale intellectual from the Thinkery promising to argue his way out of his father’s debts, however shortly thereafter he beats his father, Strepsiades, who laments the cold intellectual that Socrates has formed. His education has turned son against father. Strepsiades takes his slaves with torches to burn down the Thinkery as Socrates and his pupils flee.

For this reading I used the Focus Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.