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(From Codex Amiatinus.)

“You urge me to compose a new work,1 based on an old one2 with the result that, long after varying forms of the text of the Scriptures3 have been dispersed abroad throughout the whole world, I am to sit, like an Arbiter of Disputes, and, on account of their disagreeing amongst themselves, to determine which are they that agree with the true Greek text. A labor of genuine devotion this, but a presumptuous one, and attended by great dangers, to pronounce judgment when one is bound to be judged oneself by others, to alter the language of the man of full years, even as it charms the whole world with its melodious strains, and drag it back to the first babblings of infants. What man, indeed, learned or unlearned (we can expect the reaction to be the same), will not pick up the volume, take his first dip into the contents, spot that what he is used to reading has been altered, and immediately burst out into a tirade of denunciation, condemning me as a forger and sacrilegious vandal, who dare to add, alter, correct, anything found in ancient books? Against such opprobrium, two thoughts give me consolation: one that it is you yourself, the Supreme Religious Authority, who instruct me to do this; and the other, that that is not true which undergoes variation even the testimony of the calumniators confirms.

“If faith, indeed, is to be maintained in the Latin forms of the text, let them tell us, Which? for there are as many variant forms of the text, almost, as book-form manuscripts. But if the truth is not to be sought from the majority, why not go back to the Greek source, and correct those parts which either have been badly rendered by damnable translators, or have been perversely emended by inexperienced and presumptuous individuals, or have been added to or altered by careless scribes?

“My problem, it follows, is not with the Old Testament, which was translated by the Seventy Elders into the Greek language, and so reached us in three stages.4 I am not inquiring what Aquila, what Symmachus, understand about a passage, or why Theodotion takes a middle course between the modern and the ancient.5 Let that be the true interpretation to which the Apostles gave their sanction.6 I am talking now about the New Testament, which, there is no doubt, is Greek, excepting the Apostle Matthew, who first published the Gospel of Christ in Judaea, using the Hebrew script. This assuredly is out of harmony with our manner of speech, and leads off into different streams and courses, and must be traced back to its one original source. I exclude those manuscripts which are named after Lucian and Hesychius, and which the perverse contending of a limited few promotes, and which are useless, the one as well as the other, for emending anything in the Old Testament in light of the translation of the Seventy, and are no aid in emending the text of the New Testament, since the Scriptures earlier translated into the languages of many nations show they are false, as they have been added to.

“Therefore this little prefatory work deals with four Gospels only, no more, whose order is as follows, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, by an emended collation of Greek book-form manuscripts, but ancient ones too. We have used our pen sparingly, to the extent that those readings only which appear to have changed the meaning have been corrected, and those left at the conclusion of the aforesaid process, which do not differ much from the Latin reading to which we are accustomed, we have permitted to remain as they were.”7

Jerome’s method, as stated and implied here, was scurrilous. He admitted the variety and scribal corruption of Latin texts in the West, and announced his intention to produce a standard and correct Latin text, as he was commissioned by bishop Damasus of Rome. (A little historical background on Damasus, bishop AD 366-384: he was installed as bishop of the First Church of Rome with the help of an armed mob, and with the slaughter of upwards of one hundred and thirty in the basilica of Sicininus, to the considerable consternation of the Roman government, and the disgust of thoughtful pagan observers, after a prolonged violent struggle over the succession.) At that time, as Jerome himself admitted (Letter CXII. 19, ed. Migne PL 22, col. 928), there was hardly a Church Library anywhere which did not have a copy of Origen’s Bible texts. But, instead of using some local Origenic resource, or even going to Constantinople in order to translate the officially sanctioned Origenic Bible into Latin, as he should have done, Jerome amazingly took as his standard the existing Latin text which was current in the First Church of Rome (literally “the customary Latin reading”, customary, that is, to Jerome, Damasus et al.) and went round looking for any Greek manuscripts which agreed with that in any part of their text! Many of these manuscripts were of no great antiquity, as he specifically says he used “ancient ones too”. Patching together in this manner an assortment of Greek texts of different ages, milieus, and qualities, to match the Latin, he ennobled with the name of “an emended collation of Greek book-form manuscripts”. The word “emended” is explained by the phrase immediately following, which tells us, that on occasions, though “sparingly”, Jerome found it necessary to “correct” the text (viz., as demonstrated by the word “emended” in the phrase immediately preceding, to “correct” the GREEK TEXT) only where the meaning appeared to have changed! In other words, if no Greek manuscript could be found to match the Latin, then he resorted to emendation of the Greek, back translating from the Latin, on the following grounds: that the Latin translation was made from an “original Greek text” which had since become corrupted or lost (though, in truth, it only existed in Jerome’s mind), and could be “restored” by examining many different surviving manuscripts, or, in the last resort, by back translating from the more perfect Latin text. Note how similar this procedure is to modern Textual Criticism as it has evolved since the nineteenth century.

To justify his use of a Latin translation as a standard, Jerome pointed to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament favored in the Greek-speaking East, though it differed widely from the letter of the Hebrew. Many Greeks refused to accept any alteration to the Septuagint, even when, as was the case with the Greek translation made from Origen’s Hexaplar Hebrew text, the new Greek translation adhered more closely to the original Hebrew. The recensions of Lucian (popular in Byzantium and the Greek East) and Hesychius (in Alexandria and Egypt) were criticized for that reason. Jerome now implied the Latin translation of the New Testament current in his circle was equivalent in value to the Septuagint translation of the Old. As any Greek admirer of the Septuagint would do in relation to that translation, if it was threatened by a rival pointing to the original Hebrew, Jerome damned what he supposed to be “alterations” to the original Greek text of the New Testament by Lucian and Hesychius. Eusebius, on the contrary, highly praised Lucian: this he certainly would not have done supposing he had been guilty of adding words to the inspired text of the New Testament. Lucian and Hesychius edited the accepted Greek translation of the Old Testament, where they believed it was deficient or corrupt, but there is no evidence they tampered with the text of the New Testament, in an age when the autographs were still extant. The “additions” of Lucian and Hesychius imagined by Jerome, clearly, were passages in the New Testament where Damasus’ debased Latin text had omissions. By way of contrast, the quite incredible blatancy of Jerome’s arrogance in respect of his own “editorial” work on the Holy Scriptures is demonstrated by the following quotation from his preface to the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon: “In that book which is entitled by most the Wisdom of Solomon ... I have restrained my use of the pen, since I only want to dedicate my effort to the emending of the Canonical Scriptures, to works which are certainly authentic, rather than to dubious ones.” Jerome persistently uses words like emendavi and correctavi: let the reader take note, and consider how that might explain the divergence of readings in text types similar to that of Jerome’s Vulgate vis-à-vis the Byzantine type.

Jerome’s pleading in favor of the Septuagint seems merely to have been a ploy to support the ridiculous expedient of using the Latin translation of the First Church of Rome as his standard. As soon as he had produced his revised Latin New Testament, he dropped his earlier plan to translate the Septuagint into Latin for the Old Testament, claimed he had lost the major part of what was already completed of it through the fraud of a third party, and rushed off to a hermit’s cavern in Palestine in order to translate the Hebrew afresh from Origen’s Hebrew text with the help of unconverted Rabbis! This in spite of the existence of excellent translations of the Old Testament texts into Latin, from the Greek translations of Origen and Eusebius, by Hilary bishop of Poitiers, the patron of the illustrious Martin of Tours, and Eusebius bishop of Vercelli, the former of whom had been followed also by Ambrose of Milan. (Letter CXII ut cit. infra.) In the event, translating direct from the Hebrew seems to have been too much for Jerome, and he resorted, unsurprisingly, to “emending from the Greek”. He describes his method as follows (Letter CXII. 20, ed. Migne PL 22, col. 929, emphases mine): “My aim has been, not so much to do away with the older attempts,8 which I translated into Latin emended from the Greek for the men who speak my language, but rather, to provide, for their open perusal, those testimonials which were overlooked or corrupted by the Jews, so that our people could know what the real Hebrew writings contained.” Note also here the typical anti-Semitic slur. His claim to be able to divine where the Hebrew had been “corrupted” and to restore the “real Hebrew writings” is remarkable. Contempt for the Hexapla, corresponding to that evinced for the accepted Hebrew text, is demonstrated by the disdain he directs at Origen for his use of the Greek translation of Theodotion, that is, as he emphasizes, of an unconverted Jew, to supply portions of text, marked by Origen with asterisks in the Hexapla, which were missing in the Septuagint (ibid., col 928): but remember, Jerome himself used unconverted Jewish Rabbis to elucidate the Hebrew for him! A magnificent example of Origen’s Hexaplar Greek text of the Old Testament, of the sort which in Jerome’s time had spread all over the ecclesiastical world, and which Jerome is talking about here is found in Codex Sarravianus (G) of the 4th or 5th century AD, 130 leaves of which are at Leiden, 22 at Paris, and 1 at Leningrad. It is basically the Septuagint, with superfluous passages marked with obelisks, and sections, marked with asterisks, inserted from other Greek translations of the Hebrew where the Septuagint was deficient. The letter (ed. Migne CXII) in which Jerome voiced these prejudices was composed by way of reply to the renowned Augustine of Hippo, who dared to question the worth of Jerome’s new translation, and who, in fact, and very wisely, made no use of it. One of Augustine’s complaints was that in his original Latin translation of the Septuagint, Jerome employed obelisks and asterisks in imitation of Origen, even to excess, marking passages which were superfluous and missing as compared to the Hebrew, but failed to do the same in his latest translation direct from the Hebrew. Augustine’s implication is that Jerome’s new text did not correspond precisely with the Hebrew, and left variations unmarked, potentially misleading the reader. (Letter CV, ibid., col. 833.) Jerome brooked no criticism. His letter is a sneering, patronizing, riposte to Augustine, accusing him in so many words of being an ignorant dunce in the field of textual criticism. He explains away the variations comically by claiming translator’s license, that his translation was a free, or “dynamic”, rendering, rather than an “equivalent”, word-for-word, one.

Jerome’s final product, the Latin Vulgate, including both Old and New Testaments, thus entirely dispensed with the texts accepted by the majority of Greeks. It rejected the authentic Apostolic writings for the New Testament, and based itself, instead, on the “emended collation of Greek book-form manuscripts” patched together by Jerome. For the Old Testament, it spurned both the accepted Septuagint Greek translation, in all the extant recensions, and the more literal Greek translations based on Origen’s Hebrew, and, emending from the Greek of Origen and Eusebius, followed a Rabbinic exegesis of the Hebrew which was anti-Christian, of the kind expressly rejected by the Greek Churches of the East.

1 Viz. a revision of the Latin version.

2 The older Latin version.

3 In Latin.

4 That is, from (1) the original Hebrew, through (2) the Greek translation of the Seventy, the Septuagint, to (3) the Latin translation of the Septuagint being worked on by Jerome.

5 Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion were translators of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, using different principles and methods of translation.

6 When they included Greek translations of the Old Testament Hebrew in their New Testament writings.

7 The Latin of the last few lines from Tischendorf’s Codex Amiatinus reads thus: “Igitur haec praesens praefatiuncula pollicetur quattuor tantum evangelia, quorum ordo iste est, Matthaeus Marcus Lucas Iohannes, codicum graecorum emendata conlatione sed et veterum. Quae ne multum e lectionis latinae consuetudine discreparent, ita calamo temperavimus ut his tantum quae sensum videbantur mutare correctis reliqua manere pateremur ut fuerant.” There follows a description of the Canons, an ancient system of cross-references in the Gospels, used by Eusebius and as represented in Jerome’s new Latin version.

8 That is, as he has just stated, the Greek translations of the Old Testament texts by Origen and Eusebius.