The Hermit Who Saved the Hebrew Truth
John D. Currid
Chancellor’s Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary
By the last half of the fourth century A.D., the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was universally received as the authoritative Old Testament for the Christian Church. In fact, it was thought to be of divine origin and divine inspiration. Numerous theologians, such as Eusebius and Augustine, believed that the Apostles transmitted the LXX to the church as the inspired OT text. Irenaeus and others understood the Apostles to have only used the LXX in their own writings and, therefore, it was the inspired and infallible translation of the OT for the church. Even the great exegete Chrysostom drew “out a great chain of transmission of the Old Testament from Moses and the Prophets to Ezra to the Seventy through Jesus to the Apostles and down to the Gentiles.”
They knew, of course, that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. However, they believed the LXX to be a divinely inspired interpretation and completion of the Hebrew text. In that sense it was an inspired and infallible translation that was superior to the original Hebrew text. So what we see is the melding of the original Hebrew text with tradition and what comes forth is a completed, infallible work.
It seems obvious to us in the twenty-first century that whatever merits the LXX has or whatever authority it acquired in the church, it still is a translation and therefore secondary. And it is equally obvious that it is not a very good translation. Moreover, it was “useless in controversy with Jews, who openly laughed at some of its renderings and quite rightly pointed out that they were a travesty of the Hebrew.” But during the fourth century such things were not so obvious: the LXX was simply held to be the authoritative Old Testament for the Christian Church.
In order to challenge the universal assumption of the divine origin and inspiration of the LXX, the church was in need of an irascible theological brawler; a street-fighter who would take on the dominant and weighty theologians of the day. And the church found one in Eusebius Hieronymus, or as most people know him, Jerome. He would make an ad fontes call to the church, that it would return to the sources and to the Hebraica Veritas, that is, the Hebrew truth. And this summons, in my opinion, is Jerome’s most significant contribution to the history and development of the church.
Jerome was singularly and uniquely prepared for this task since “hardly any of his contemporaries could come near to rivaling him.” The only one who perhaps could have fought the good fight would have been Epiphanius of Salamis, who was knowledgeable of Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Hebrew, and Latin. Jerome himself understood his unique ability in this regard: he said of himself, “ego . . . hebraeus, graecus, latinus, trilinguis,” that is, “I am . . . one who knows Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, a trilingual man.”
There is some debate regarding the date of Jerome’s birth, but it appears to be in 347 A.D. in the city of Stridonius, a small town at the head of the Adriatic Sea (which today would be Bosnia/Herzegovina). He was born of Christian parents who were prosperous. They sent him to Rome for his education in about the year 360 A.D. In Rome, he studied under the famous grammarian Aelius Donatus. His native language was the Illyrian dialect, but in Rome he became fluent in Latin and Greek, and, indeed, began his studies of Koine Greek at that time. He was baptized by Pope Liberius in 360 A.D.
Jerome spent the next decade exploring the world and spending time in theological studies. In 373 A.D. he arrived at Antioch, and there resolved to lay aside any secular studies and only look to the Bible. He also was convinced to live a life of asceticism and he left Antioch to go live as a hermit in the desert of Chalcis, some fifty miles southeast of Antioch (in modern-day Syria). In his letter #15 he tells us why: “And because for my sins I exiled myself in that desert which bounds Syria by its adjacent border of wasteland.”
In the Desert
Jerome lived four years in the desert in the practice of austerity and study. Yet, even seclusion in the desert did not cure him of the many temptations of the flesh. In a letter he wrote to his friend Eustochium, he explained, “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert, burnt up with the heat of the sun, so scorching that it frightens even the monks who live there, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome . . .” He said he could not get the dancing girls of Rome out of his head, and that he could not gain victory over his own flesh. So, what was he to do? What is one to do when such thoughts dominate and engulf one’s being? He tells us the following: “When my soul was on fire with wicked thoughts, as a last resort, I became a pupil to a monk who had been a Jew, in order to learn the Hebrew alphabet.”
Jerome immersed himself in the Hebrew language while in the desert. He says, “I turned to this language of hissing and harshness. What labor it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and abandoned it and began again to learn . . . I thank our Lord that I now gather such sweet fruit from the bitter sowing of those studies.” This sounds like a Hebrew student of the twenty-first century, but it worked! Jerome was able to expel and banish the thoughts of the dancing girls of Rome from his head and his heart. Ah, the glories of Hebrew!
In about 378 A.D., he left the desert, returned to Antioch and was ordained to the priesthood there. He ended up back in Rome, and was a close confidante of Pope Damasus. He, however, found life in the secular world burdensome and so in 386 A.D. he left for the Holy Land.
With the help of a friend of his named Paula, Jerome moved to Bethlehem and there built a monastery near the church of the Nativity. Jerome himself lived in a large cave next to the church and monastery. He opened a hospice for pilgrims at the site so that, according to Paula, “should Mary and Joseph visit Bethlehem again, they would have a place to stay.”
Jerome spent the last 34 years of his life here in study. He used much of the time mastering his Hebrew skills. In fact, in one letter Jerome speaks of a Jew named Bar Ananias, who came to him at night in order to teach him more Hebrew. He came in darkness so that other Jews would not find out what he was doing; Jerome called Bar Ananias “another Nicodemus.” It was also important that he lived where the names of biblical places, events, and customs all combined to give him a more vivid view of the Scriptures. In 348 A.D., Cyril of Jerusalem declared that “the land was the fifth gospel.” Thus, even in these early days, scholars understood the importance of the land of Israel for helping to interpret the Scriptures.
The Work of Translation
In the year 390/391 A.D., Jerome began his greatest undertaking: he was convinced that the original OT text in Hebrew has supreme authority. He thus wanted to challenge the commonly-held assumption of his time that the LXX was of direct, divine origin. He came under conviction that a satisfactory Latin version of the OT could be made only on the basis of the Hebrew original. And, therefore, Jerome decided to produce a completely new rendering of the OT from the Hebrew text. He believed it was essential to return to what he called the veritas Hebraica, that is “the Hebrew truth.”
Jerome spent the next 15 years in the cave in Bethlehem translating most of the books of the OT directly from the Hebrew. In Letter 112, he states his purpose clearly: “I only translated the divine texts as I found them in the Hebrew.” He began his translation with the books of Kings and then proceeded through the rest. However, when he came to the book of Daniel he found that a good portion of it was written in Aramaic. So what did he do? He learned the Aramaic language, and then finished his translation of Daniel. We really should be struck by Jerome’s scholarly tenacity.
His translation work was not without controversy. One of his primary opponents in this regard was Saint Augustine. Augustine accused Jerome of becoming a Judaizer by abandoning the LXX in favor of the Hebrew text. Augustine cited the use of the LXX by the Apostles in the NT as evidence that the LXX had the Apostolic imprimatur to be the OT for the church. Unfortunately, Augustine had the mistaken belief that was common at the time that the Apostles only used the LXX when they quoted the OT. That, of course, is flatly untrue: the Apostles and NT writers were obviously quite familiar with the Hebrew text and they quoted from it often. Jerome was correct in this controversy. What the debate did underscore is what one historian calls the great travesty of church history, which is that Augustine never learned Hebrew!
Not only did Jerome translate the OT into Latin directly from the Hebrew text, but he also produced a number of commentaries that discuss linguistic and textual issues of the Hebrew text. The most valuable ones are on the book of Genesis, the Psalms, and some of the prophets. Exegetically, the literalness of the text of the OT dominates his methodology. He also did contextual work, such as research in geography, topography, and etymology. In his preaching, Jerome was not quite as strict in his historical-grammatical approach, and at times allegory would sneak in. But, for the most part, he was a solid exegete of the Hebrew text.
Jerome’s exegetical stance was not a popular one in the fourth century, and it led to a major controversy. There was a famous theologian of the day named Rufinus of Aquileia (in Italy near Trieste next to the Mediterranean), and he was a disciple of Origen. Origen, of course, was one of the great allegorists and spiritualizers in the history of the Christian Church. Rufinus published a new translation of Origen’s work De principiis in order to demonstrate that Origen was an orthodox interpreter of the Bible. Jerome responded to this publication in a fury. This led to a long, bitter, and fierce disagreement between the two men. In fact, Jerome did his own translation of Origen’s De principiis and published it in order to demonstrate how heretical Origen really was! This was a polemical treatise at its best, and, again, Jerome was correct and on the right side of the argument.
Jerome’s translation of the OT did not catch on right away. In fact, St. Augustine told the story of the Bishop of Tripoli who authorized the use of Jerome’s translation of Jonah in his church. When the people heard it, they rioted in the streets because the translation was so unfamiliar. His translation did not achieve any real acceptance or success until after his death. Yet over time it gained much acceptance so that at the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, over 1100 years after his death, Jerome’s Vulgate was pronounced to be the authentic and authoritative Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church. When movable type was invented in the 15th century, in fact, Jerome’s translation was the first book printed.
Jerome died at the age of 73 in 420 A.D. He was buried under the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where he had labored for so many years. Apparently in the thirteenth century his remains were removed and transported to Rome where he was buried in the Sistine Chapel of the basilica of Maria Maggiore, that is the Virgin Mary. Beneath the high altar of the basilica is the Crypt of the Nativity or the Bethlehem Crypt. It is said that this crypt in Rome contains some of the wood from the crib used for Jesus during his birth in Bethlehem. It is in this crypt that Jerome is now buried. It is ironic, at least to me, that Jerome spent 34 years of his life in the real Bethlehem, but he is now buried in a crypt in Rome that merely commemorates Bethlehem. The Roman Catholic Church calls his re-burial a “translation.” But my sense is that he would not have approved of that translation for as we know Jerome loved that which is original and authentic.
When we assess the impact of Jerome on the history of the church there is much that can be said. Let me draw just a few conclusions. First, Jerome’s return to the Hebrew text and his call back to the Hebraica veritas were seminal. In an age where Greek forms dominated much of the intellectual landscape of Christianity, Jerome attempted to restore the importance of the OT in Hebrew as foundational to the church. He evinced an enthusiasm for Hebrew texts not to be matched until the Reformation.
Jerome also had a strong yearning for accuracy of translation. He believed, and I think he was right, that the LXX was a poor translation that had been poorly transmitted to the church. And, thus, his pronouncement of the superiority of the Hebrew text of the OT over the Greek was spot on.
And, finally, Jerome was an important figure in the history of Hebrew exegesis. In this regard, Stefan Rebenich gives Jerome high praise when he says, “Jerome’s exegetical importance can properly be compared with the theological importance of Augustine.”
In my own estimation, Jerome was a towering figure in church history. He was a hermit who saved the Hebrew truth!
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.21.3.
 A. Kamesar, Jerome, Greek Scholarship, and the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 29.
 H. F. D. Sparks, “Jerome as Biblical Scholar,” in P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, eds. The Cambridge History of the Bible: From the Beginnings to Jerome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 515.
 Stefan Rebenich, Jerome (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 56.
 His journey to the desert began in 375 A.D. See J. H. D. Scourfield, “Jerome, Antioch, and the Desert: A Note on Chronology,” Journal of Theological Studies 37 (1986):117-21.
 Rebenich, Jerome, p. 56.