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For the next one thousand years, Jerome’s authoritative Latin compendium was edited, revised, and superseded numerous times throughout Europe.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.

Thoughts on Wisdom in Ecclesiasticus

The grandson of the author of Ecclesiasticus opens the book with a prologue of his journey through Egypt translating the text into Greek, which has allowed him to impart great wisdom on his peers, the Egyptian Jewry -for the Torah is good, but only words written in their native tongue carry the greatest power. The author claims to be a teacher of how to achieve wisdom, not unlike the Athenian Sophists. The author labors, like a martyr, for the wisdom of “all people.” The remainder of the text, reflects his grandfather’s book of wisdom (wisdom books were highly popular among Greek-speaking Jews near the turn to the so-called “common era.”)

Naturally, the text is decidedly theological. Wisdom is described as being “created” by God, and can be attained “only” through Him. As echoed elsewhere in the Bible, the “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Thus, wisdom is quantifiable like a possession, and is rewarded to meek and lowly people, whom God favors. The Lord delights in “faith and meekness” (1:27). How, then, are we to understand the author’s attainment of wisdom through his mysterious book in Egypt? Did he achieve wisdom by reading and learning, or rather through divine intervention, or fear?

However, the poetry of the text is beautiful. In some ways, it reads like a series of maxims for how to live a good life, perhaps similar to the Tao Te Ching or as an extension of Proverbs. But what is meant by a “good life”? Does the text encourage upright moral citizenship? Or merely meek and lowly people to submit to the will of the Shephard? Does it reinforce the laws of the city, or counter them?

According to the text, wisdom is a kind of ontology -one must behave in a fearful, meek, yet just and faithful way. In order to be wise, one must spend time with elders, and speak less but listen more. Give more than you take. Have patience, do not dishonor others. Be selective of your family. Be well-ordered, like a judge; not petty like a beggar, but still meek. Your laughter reveals what kind of man you are. Do all things only according to the proper time and place. Be wise, but not bitter and resentful. Avoid slothfulness, do things only with your own money. Find yourself a silent and obedient wife with a strong mind, and be firm with your slaves. Yet, still follow the Mosaic law and take pity on the poor. Two of his key theological claims are: that man has a freedom of will, and that God rewards virtuous people. Wisdom is personified as a woman -as in later literature as “Lady Wisdom.”

The text closes at the 51st chapter, wherein the author Jeshua son of Sirach (Yeshua ben Sira) admits that he was unfulfilled by the men of the world, but in his despair he called on the Lord who never abandoned him. In this way, he “profited” from his “learning” -and the text closes with a promise of “rewards” if one follows these maxims.

The book has no particular structure, and is considered an apocryphal late Hebrew text. It is included among Catholic and Eastern canons, as well as the King James Bible. The text is rare in that it presents a whole book as if it had come down to us from one single author. It is unique in its declaration of authorship. The author ben Sira, was a famous ancient Jewish scribe of Alexandria, Egypt. Fragmentary Hebrew copies of the text have been found throughout Egypt, and the Greek translation was included in the Septuagint.

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

Thoughts on the Book of Wisdom

The apocryphal Biblical text, sometimes called the “Book of Wisdom” is a collection of 19 chapters intended to encourage readers and listeners to pursue a life of wisdom. It is a non-canonical text that likely emerged from the educated city of Alexandria, Egypt. It is sometimes attributed to Solomon and was listed in the Vulgate as “Liber Sapientiae” or the “Book of Wisdom.” Early Christians considered the text as part of the “Old Testament” with the rest of the Wisdom books, and some Catholics continue this tradition today, however most denominations of Christianity consider the book apocryphal.

The frame of the text is less of a dialogue or a story, and more of a theological treatise or prayer. It is listed as one of the seven “Sapiential Wisdom Books” of the Greek Septuagint, along with Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach (another apocryphal text). It contains more than a hint of influences from Epicureanism, as well as echoes of Stoicism.

The text contains some beautiful poetry, however I was troubled by this book. What is wisdom (understood Biblically)? Why should someone pursue a life of wisdom?

According to Chapter 1, wisdom is akin to “righteousness” -or upright moral behavior. In order to act according to righteousness, one must first be persuaded and reared to do so. Chapter 2 indicates that the unwise bemoan the apparent meaningless in the world (a la Ecclesiastes), while the wise will be rewarded by God with “blessings” and “glorious fruits of their labor.”

Therefore, wisdom (the theologian teaches) should be pursued not for its own sake, as might be said among philosophers, but rather wisdom must be pursued to avoid suffering, and even to gain rewards from God. People should seek wisdom because it pleases God, and he will provide rewards. The text approaches human beings with a promise and a threat.

Both philosophy and theology teach the goodness of wisdom, but theology claims to distribute divine rewards and punishments. For theology, everyone should pursue a life of wisdom, or else face consequences, while philosophy is not necessarily accessible to all. Additionally, philosophy cannot make such a promise of bliss. The historical life of a philosopher is dangerous, and in many cases; deadly, however this is also true of the theologian.

At Chapter 6, the text laments the lack of wisdom of the great kings, who have forgotten that power comes only from God. The writer promises to bring to light the nature of wisdom, he gives an apologia. Where did he receive wisdom? When he was young he “cried out” and the “spirit of wisdom” came unto him from God (7:7) -a greater possession than riches (note: the same claim was made by the Sophists in ancient Athens -that wisdom could be taught and possessed, contra Socrates as described in Plato’s dialogues). Is wisdom the same as knowledge?

The remaining chapters of the text detail an extended prayer of thanks to God for apportioning all things according to wisdom. As in the surviving manuscript of Boethius from the ‘Middle Ages’, Wisdom is personified, as a female person at the right-hand of God. She is praised for her beauty. The author follows wisdom through an abbreviated story of the Torah. The text is intended to be educational for kings, as well as autobiographical, but also a scholarly reflection on theological implications of wisdom. It is a fascinating mix of prose styles in one single short book. However, the philosophical questions still linger at the end of the text: What is wisdom? And, can it be taught?

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

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.