Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jerome and the Deuterocanon

I have recently been studying Kevin Edgecomb's translation of the Prologues to the Vulgate.

I find these very interesting for a number of reasons. For one, they tell us a little about how Scripture was viewed in the 4th and 5th centuries. We also see the role of Bishops, and what role they played in this, not least of whom was Pope Damasus I. And we also see the role that Council of Nicaea played.

We also learn a lot about Jerome himself and his translation methodology. All of this is very instructive. But the real reason these are so helpful has to do with why I was looking at them in the first place.

Several days ago I spoke to a friend, B.D., and he (a Protestant) repeated to me the oft-repeated line that Jerome disdained the Apocrypha. He can be forgiven for repeating this line, as it is many quite respectable sources. My Good News Bible, the one with the Apocrypha in a middle section, has this in the intro to the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon. And I have seen it elsewhere. Now, the motivation for this line originally (not B.D.'s per se, or the GNB either, but earlier than they) was to sort of poke fun at us Catholics. The Tridentine Council declared the Vulgate the official Catholic Bible. And so, snicker snicker snicker, isn't it funny you Catholics like this Bible's canon when even its translator rejected the Deuterocanon? Snicker, snicker, snicker.

The truth is much more complicated than that when it comes to Jerome's views himself. I wanted to find the actual Latin of his letters, but it seems I'll have to buy the Biblia Sacra Vulgata, 5th Edition myself to get them, but you see how expensive that is. So I stumbled on Kevin's translations. He does a great job, and shows via footnotes where he got certain translations.

If we just read his prologue to the Solomonic literature, we see the famous line, famous to the Reformers anyway: "Therefore, just as the Church also reads the books of Judith, Tobias, and the Maccabees, but does not receive them among the canonical Scriptures, so also one may read these two scrolls for the strengthening of the people, (but) not for confirming the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas." That would seem to be pretty damning wouldn't it? Kevin, in his introduction to this prologue on his blog points out that you could say the same of many canonical Scriptures too. I would be interested, for example, to see what dogma is served by the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. Still, in this we see what might be termed at worst naked hostility and at best ambivalence.

So it is then interesting to read the prologues to other more specific books. In his prologue to Tobit, we see Jerome at his most petulant. He complains to the Bishops that they want Tobit translated, when Jerome reminds them the book is not found among the Hebrew canon. But then he says ""But it is better to be judging the opinion of the Pharisees to displease and to be subject to the commands of bishops" (emphasis mine). We again note his surrender to authority in his prologue to Judith: "But because this book is found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request ..." There are some interesting tidbits in these two prologues. In the Tobit one he notes that "I have persisted as I have been able, and because the language of the Chaldeans is close to Hebrew speech, finding a speaker very skilled in both languages, I took to the work of one day, and whatever he expressed to me in Hebrew words, this, with a summoned scribe, I have set forth in Latin words." Quite amazing really. And in Judith he notes "Among the Hebrews the Book of Judith is found among the Hagiographa" which is his word for the Ketuvim, the Writings, the third section of Hebrew Scripture. That's remarkable that Judith was considered canonical by some of the Jews even in Jerome's time.

Some might point to his letter about Daniel, which contains this line "Therefore, I have shown these things to you as a difficulty of Daniel, which among the Hebrews has neither the history of Susanna, nor the hymn of the three young men, nor the fables of Bel and the dragon, which we, because they are spread throughout the whole world, have appended by banishing and placing them after the skewer, so we will not be seen among the unlearned to have cut off a large part of the scroll." (emphasis mine). But what we see here actually is something subtle. I bolded a particular part to show what's going on under the surface. Here Jerome is imitating Origen, who placed bits he couldn't find in the Hebrew after an obelus, a skewer. What he is saying here is that he accepts that since the rest of the Church accepts these, rather than be accused of destroying Daniel altogether, he's imitated Origen and placed these stories after the obelus. This is important because many sources I have read say that Jerome placed Deuterocanonical parts in appendices. But in reality placing them after an obelus in imitation of Origen's Hexapla speaks more for their canonicity than relegating them to an appendix.

One could go on. What is interesting to me is that Jerome never, apparently, took up the issue of the New Testament Antilegomena. These books -- Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and even Revelation -- were all contested in the same way as the Deuterocanon of the OT was contested. I would have been fascinated to see him tackle these and provide his take on them. Jerome's views are often fascinating, like his assertion that Wisdom was written by Philo Judaeus. We do have his prologue to the Gospels, and they are also quite interesting. First, because he admits he's glad the Pope (St Damasus I) was the one to make the request of him, since if anyone objects to his translation, the Big Boss is the one who asked for them: "Against such infamy I am consoled by two causes: that it is you, who are the highest priest, who so orders..." But also for the reverence shown to the Eusebian system of tables for linking all the Gospels together. The Gospels were divided into pericopes, sections intended to be read in Church, and then each pericope was numbered. The tables (ten in number) showed which pericopes are similar to which other pericopes, and which pericopes occur in one, two, three or all four Gospels, and so on. This is due to the fact that the Fathers saw the Gospels are really one interwoven work, and not as four books with no points of intersection as the modern scholars tend to assert (or their common point of intersection is some mythical document named Q. But more on that later).

What this all tells me is that Jerome had very strong personal views about the Deuterocanon. But in the end, he always bowed, sometime petulantly, to higher authority. And my next post will detail why.

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