Home > Philology, Study of the Old Testament > Jerome’s Hebrew Philology: A Study Based on His Commentary on Jeremiah

Jerome’s Hebrew Philology: A Study Based on His Commentary on Jeremiah

  • Series: Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae
  • Author: Michael Graves
  • Pub. Year: 2007
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 244
  • ISBN-10: 9004162046
  • ISBN-13: 9789004162044
  • Format: PDF

St Jerome (ca. 347-419), translator and prolific commentator on the Old Testament, left a lasting and controversial mark on the history of biblical scholarship through his radical return to thehebraica veritas, the ‘Hebrew truth.’ Yet, the extent of Jerome’s Hebrew knowledge has been debated, and the actual role of Hebrew in Jerome’s biblical exegesis has been little explored. This book shows how Jerome’s Hebrew philology developed out of his training in classical literary studies, describes the nature of Jerome’s command of Hebrew in light of his historical context and his use of Jewish sources, and explains how Jerome used Hebrew scholarship in his biblical interpretation. Jerome emerges as a competent Hebraist, limited by his context, yet producing work of enduring significance.

Jerome’s extensive knowledge of the Bible was central to the shape of his life and thought. By his own reckoning, the study of Hebraica was of major importance to his biblical scholarship, as evidenced by his frequent appeals to the hebraica veritas, his radical opinions about the shape and basis of the canon, and the descriptions he typically gives of his own intentions in writing his commentaries, such as “eorum, qui de libris hebraicis uaria suspicantur, errores refellere,” or “arcana eruditionis hebraicae et magistrorum synagogae reconditam disciplinam, eam dumtaxat quae scripturis sanctis convenit, latinis auribus prodere,” or again, “hominibus linguae meae hebraeorum graecorumque eruditionem tradere.” Perhaps the most telling sign of Jerome’s commitment to Hebrew learning was his choice to dedicate the vast majority of his exegetical works to Old Testament books. The foundation of this Hebrew learning was Jerome’s study of the Hebrew language, and he rightly publicized the importance of this skill for the interpretation of the Old Testament.

Jerome’s approach to the study of the Hebrew Old Testament can well be described as philological. In Jerome’s case, “philology” must be understood in the general sense of the “love of learning and literature; the study of literature, in a wider sense, including grammar, literary criticism and interpretation, the relation of literature and written records to history, etc.” (OED). This broad interest in literary studies, encompassing everything from texts and grammar to interpretation and criticism, permeates all of Jerome’s writings; but it is seen most clearly in his exegetical works on the Old Testament. For Jerome, returning to the hebraica veritas was essential to understanding, explaining, and restoring the literature of the Old Testament. Already in Augustine, we see Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew being singled out as the most notable feature of his great literary ability. Jerome’s Hebrew philology was also central to his reception in the Middle Ages, and beyond. The present work aims to describe the origin and nature of Jerome’s philological method with respect to his study of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

For a long time, Jerome’s work was regarded primarily as a source of information on Hebrew matters, rather than as an object of study itself to be evaluated. All of that changed as scholars began to take a more critical approach to the writings of Christian antiquity, and in this regard Jerome has received his fair share of negative criticism. The most common charge against Jerome is that he frequently pretended to have learned or read things that he had not, in fact, learned or read; and this charge has been made in particular against his competence in Hebrew. As a result, much recent scholarship on Jerome as an Hebraist has focused on the extent (or lack thereof) of his actual Hebrew knowledge.

Early criticism of Jerome’s Hebrew scholarship came in 1706 from Bernard de Montfaucon, who noticed that whenever Eusebius said that he had learned something from “the Hebrews” or from “a Hebrew teacher,” Jerome also claimed to have learned that information from a Hebrew. In 1897, E. Klostermann drew a similar conclusion with regard to a claim made by Jerome in his Ep. 18, this time showing that Jerome’s source was Origen. Gustave Bardy (1934) likewise noted several instances in various works where Jewish sources cited by Jerome as his own were actually borrowed from Origen or Eusebius. Bardy did not question Jerome’s basic competence in Hebrew, affirming that Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew was remarkable for his time. He simply wanted to show that one should not necessarily take at face value Jerome’s claims to have learned an exegetical tradition directly from a Hebrew teacher.

Up to the time of Bardy, the criticisms of Jerome focused only on his unacknowledged “borrowings” of Jewish exegetical traditions. James Barr and Eitan Burstein, however, shifted the discussion to Jerome’s competence in Hebrew. In 1966–67, Barr addressed Jerome’s Hebrew linguistic ability in two articles, “St. Jerome and the Sounds of Hebrew,” and “St. Jerome’s Appreciation Of Hebrew.” Barr suggested that Jerome could read Hebrew and was familiar with a vocalization tradition similar to what we have come to know through the Masoretes, but that he may not have been able to speak Hebrew as a living language. Eitan Burstein, in his 1975 article, “La compétence de Jérôme en Hébreu: Explication de certaines erreurs,” questioned Jerome’s Hebrew language skills even more directly, setting forth six Hebrew errors found in Jerome’s writings. Yet, Burstein still ascribed to Jerome a “passive” reading knowledge of Hebrew, simply doubting his “active” ability to translate readily from Latin or Greek back into Hebrew. More recently, Neil Adkin has criticized Jerome’s Hebrew knowledge based on two comments found in Ep. 34. On closer investigation, however, one of these errors is only a mistaken guess at reconstructing the Hebrew Vorlage of the LXX, and the other is simply more plausible than Adkin realizes. In sum, Barr’s insightful but general observations, Burstein’s six examples, and Adkin’s two criticisms are the only explicit attempts to critique Jerome’s knowledge of the Hebrew language itself. Yet, the most extreme negative appraisal of Jerome’s linguistic competence in Hebrew was given by Pierre Nautin. In his 1977 monograph on Origen, Nautin confirmed the negative opinions expressed by Klostermann and Bardy with regard to Jerome’s excessive and unrecognized dependence on Origen. But Nautin’s strongest statement came in a 1986 article on Jerome:

läßt es sich beweisen, daß er diese Sprache praktisch kaum kannte. Wenn immer er in seinen Kommentaren oder anderen Werken den transkribierten hebräischen Text zitiert—und das tut er oft—oder Anmerkungen zur hebräischen Sprache macht, verdankt er die jeweilige Information seinen Quellen (Origenes, Eusebius, vielleicht auch Acacius v. Caesarea); sobald er sich jedoch von den Quellen entfernt, ist alles reine Erfindung.

According to Nautin, not only was Jerome unable to make his own translation out of the Hebrew, he was even incapable of checking the accuracy of earlier translations. From this perspective, Jerome’s translation iuxta Hebraeos was merely a revision of the Old Latin based on the hexaplaric versions, falsely advertised as being “according to the Hebrews.”

Nautin’s article was widely noted, even though it ignored much previous scholarship on Jerome and the Hebraic tradition. Even more important, Nautin seems to have based his views on studies that had as their objective to prove that Jerome plagiarized his sources, not that Jerome did not know Hebrew. Of course, as Günter Stemberger has recently observed, there is an obvious connection between the genuineness of Jerome’s contact with Jews and the possibility that he could have gained real proficiency in the Hebrew language. Yet, the studies of Bardy and others have hardly proven that Jerome had no contact with Jews whatsoever, and it is one thing to say that Jerome stole from Origen and Eusebius some references like, “I asked a certain Hebrew ‘x,’ and he told me ‘y,’”—it is something else to say that he had no contact with Jews at all, and that he could not read Hebrew. To some extent, the question of Jerome’s full integrity in reporting all of his sources on the one hand, and the question of his Hebrew competence on the other, must be kept separate. In Nautin’s case, we may suggest that extreme doubts about the first question led illegitimately to a negative appraisal of the second. Even Stemberger, who takes the most negative view perhaps of any recent writer on Jerome’s Jewish contacts, dismisses Nautin’s position as indefensible. Indeed, recent scholarship has called for a more balanced re-appraisal of Jerome’s Hebrew knowledge and his contact with Hebrew sources.

Positive general assessments have been given of Jerome’s Hebrew competence by authors such as G. J. M. Bartelink, Michael Wissemann, and Alfons Fürst. In addition, three recent reviews of Jerome and Hebrew learning, one by Ilona Opelt, one by Stefan Rebenich, and a third by Sandro Leanza, have cited an array of older studies, such as those of F. Stummer, L. Ginzberg, and M. Rahmer, as well as newer works, like those of Jay Braverman on Daniel, Pierre Jay on Isaiah, C. T. R. Hayward on Jerome and the Targums, and Adam Kamesar on the Hebrew Questions on Genesis, all as demonstrating Jerome’s ability to read Hebrew and the reality of his contacts with contemporary Jewish learning. Rebenich, in addition to all of the previous literature that he cites, argues for the credibility of Jerome’s Hebrew language competence based on the condence with which he responded to specic criticisms (such as the Jon. 4:6, gourd-ivy issue), and the fact that Rufinus, who dutifully pointed out many of Jerome’s personal faults and fuctions, accepted completely that Jerome had Jewish teachers and that he knew Hebrew. Leanza, for his part, contends that Jerome’s ability to teach others (like Paula and Marcella) shows his competence in Hebrew, as does his willingness to admit that his Aramaic was weak. The overall point is this: there seems to be little real doubt that Jerome had some contact with the Jews of his day, and most scholars are willing to accept that Jerome could at least read Hebrew.

Nevertheless, little progress has been made on the specific nature and use of the Hebrew language itself in Jerome’s exegesis. The linguistic studies cited by Rebenich give interesting examples and raise important questions, but they are not extensive in coverage, nor do they integrate their findings into Jerome’s exegetical method. The recent articles responding to Nautin often cite older works, which list numerous points of contact between Jerome and Hebraic exegesis but, as Kamesar has noted, are primarily collections of parallels and do not describe the function of Hebrew learning or rabbinic sources in Jerome.  Braverman’s study focuses on broad exegetical traditions rather than on Jerome’s philological approach. Jay does mention that Jerome’s Isaiah commentary contains 250 comments on Hebrew orthography, morphology, and semantics, but he gives this only a few pages of discussion, paying more attention to the “senses of Scripture” in Jerome than to Hebraic scholarship. Yves-Marie Duval deals extensively with the sources of Jerome’s exegesis on Jonah, but only in terms of exegetical themes, not philology. Other studies of Jerome, Hebrew, and Jewish traditions, which have been based on Jerome’s translations, have been unable to address questions of method, and have offered only limited results in terms of sources and interpretation, since it is in the commentaries where Jerome explains what he sees in the Hebrew text, what he knows about the Hebrew words involved, and what conclusions he draws from the Hebrew for his interpretation of the passage.

Still, we may point to significant contributions made recently to our understanding of Jerome’s Hebrew philology by two scholars who, notably, have both written on Jerome’s important Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim. First, C. T. R. Hayward showed in his translation and commentary on QHG how rabbinic, and especially targumic traditions (along with the hexaplaric materials) can be used to illuminate the Hebraic dimension of Jerome’s exegesis.38 Hayward, however, does not explicitly address the issue of Hebrew competence, and more importantly does not attempt to integrate the Hebraic component into Jerome’s overall philological framework. Hayward also argued for a connection between Jerome and the Targums in two articles published in the 1980’s, one of which dealt specifically with the Commentary on Jeremiah. In these pieces, Hayward showed numerous credible points of contact between Jerome and Jewish traditions known to us through the Targums, and he made some suggestive observations on points of linguistic exegesis. But Hayward’s main focus in these articles was not the philological study of the biblical text, and he usually set the Targums against Origen and the LXX as the most likely sources for Jerome’s treatment, not taking sufficient account of other possible Greek sources like the hexaplaric versions.

Second, Adam Kamesar has shown that Jerome’s appropriation of rabbinic traditions in QHG was not simply a matter of antiquarianism, but rather was an essential element within his overall philological system.41 Jerome seems to have used rabbinic traditions and the direct study of the Hebrew text (the two being closely associated in Jerome’s mind) as a means to interpret and correct his Greek sources, intending thereby to obtain a more accurate understanding of the Hebraica veritas than his Greek and Latin predecessors. It remains, however, to present a comprehensive picture of Jerome’s methodological framework with specific focus on his Hebrew philology, as well as to describe the use of Hebrew in Jerome’s larger interpretive enterprise. The present work attempts to address both of these issues. It will also examine the sources that Jerome used in his Hebrew scholarship, as seen in one particular work (the Comm. Ier.), explicitly addressing the question of Jerome’s competence in Hebrew.

Observations on the Hebrew text may be found in any of Jerome’s commentaries on the Old Testament, as well as in many of his philologically oriented letters. In this study, we have chosen to focus on one commentary in particular, so that we may be able to treat with sufficient detail at least a representative sample of Jerome’s Hebrew analysis. For several reasons, the Commentary on Jeremiah is especially well suited for our purposes. For one, it is a mature work, and should reflect well what Jerome was and was not able to do. Jerome started on the Comm. Ier. In 414, having already written his commentaries on the Minor Prophets (finished in 406), Daniel (407), Isaiah (408–10), and Ezekiel (410–14). The Comm. Ier. was therefore one of his last works, which would have completed his series of commentaries on the prophets—if he had been able to finish it. As it turned out, Jerome died in Sept., 419, having reached only to the end of chapter thirty-two of this largest of all prophetic books. In spite of his age and declining health, however, the Comm. Ier. does not reflect any weakening of Jerome’s mental abilities. On the contrary, the thoroughness of the work—its attention to detail, consistent interaction with sources, and abundance of cross-references—prove Jerome to be still at the height of his powers. In the Comm. Ier., Jerome was able to apply his whole experience of Hebrew learning to his exposition of the biblical text.

Another advantage of the Comm. Ier. is that it is a relatively large work (440 pages in the CSEL edition), the comprehensive treatment of which offers an objective basis for research. Within the Comm. Ier., there is found a wide variety of comments based on the Hebrew text, showing the full range of Jerome’s method. There are also many opportunities for Jerome to demonstrate his competence in Hebrew, or conversely to commit Hebrew mistakes. Our conclusions will naturally reflect Jerome’s practice primarily in the Comm. Ier., but relevant parallel passages from outside Jeremiah will be cited and discussed. The Comm. Ier. is large enough that a reasonably accurate picture of Jerome’s Hebrew philology in general may be drawn from its contents.

This is true all the more so because the Comm. Ier. contains such a large number of comments on the Hebrew text. More than 75 different Hebrew words are discussed explicitly, over thirty etymologies are given for proper names, and in ten instances Jerome spells out one or more Hebrew words in order to explain a point. In addition, Jerome makes frequent appeal to the Hebrew in order to address other kinds of textual issues, like the division of the text into units, or the identification of the speaker. The nature of Jeremiah itself also contributed to the Hebrew emphasis of the work. With its numerous divergences between the Hebrew and Greek texts, the book of Jeremiah forced Jerome to pay particular attention to questions relating to Hebrew in his commentary. For all of these reasons, the Commentary on Jeremiah is an ideal source for analyzing the Hebrew component of Jerome’s biblical scholarship.

In terms of our own method, we will describe Jerome’s Hebrew philology by looking at the Hebrew observations in his Commentary on Jeremiah from three different angles.

First, in chapter two, we will look at the methodological framework of Jerome’s Hebrew philology. How did Jerome come to recognize the need for a scholarly approach to the Hebrew Old Testament? What did he look for when he read the text, and how did he go about trying to explain what he found? In order to answer these questions, we will show how Jerome’s Hebrew philology developed out of his training in classical literary studies. Only through this lens can we properly assess his work with the Hebrew text, both in the ways that he reflects this literary and cultural environment, and in the ways that he deviates from it.

Second, we will consider the specific sources used by Jerome in learning and interpreting the Hebrew text. How did these sources, and Jerome’s access to them, shape his understanding of Hebrew? By what process did Jerome learn Hebrew, and how did he use his sources when explaining the Hebrew text? Did Jerome merely rely on previous Greek studies for his Hebrew information, or was he actually reading the text in Hebrew himself ? These questions will be addressed in chapter three, through a comprehensive study of the 76 Hebrew words explicitly discussed in the Commentary on Jeremiah.

Third, we will examine what roles Hebrew philology played in Jerome’s overall approach to interpreting the biblical text. Does Jerome simply transmit Hebrew information for interest’s sake, or is Hebrew integrated into his exegesis? Does he use Hebrew primarily as an apologetic tool against Jewish interpretations, or does he employ it more for “positive” readings? When Hebrew is employed to elucidate meaning, does it belong more closely with the spiritual sense of the text, or does it serve the literal explanation? We will address these questions in chapter four, by means of our own commentary on key passages from the Commentary on Jeremiah where Jerome makes special appeal to the Hebrew text.

Throughout our study, we will consider the ways in which Jerome’s approach to the study of the Hebrew Old Testament is similar to, and differs from, that of modern scholarship. In chapter four in particular, we will point out how Jerome’s treatments of various philological problems in the Hebrew text of Jeremiah compare with those of modern commentators. Our overall goal is to describe, appreciate, and assess Jerome’s Hebrew scholarship on the book of Jeremiah, in light of Jerome’s own sources, methods, and objectives.

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