Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Riot in the North African Church! Augustine on Jerome's Translation of the Bible

    While reading Harry Gamble's excellent article “Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the New Testament Canon,”[1] I came across a quote from one of Augustine's letters to Jerome. In this letter Augustine appears to be taking Jerome to task for an erroneous translation from the Hebrew into Latin for his new translation of the Old and New Testaments, now referred to as the Latin Vulgate. Apparently the Church in North Africa had been used to hearing a certain Latin word read at a point in Jonah 4:6. It is interesting that the Greeks in particular took issue with a Latin Translation. Perhaps because they were (obviously) bi-lingual and had been accustomed to hearing a certain word here at this point being read from the Greek LXX and understood that the Latin word Jerome had used was not a good representation of the LXX either.
    "A certain bishop, one of our brethren, having introduced in the church over which he presides the reading of your version, came upon a word in the book of the prophet Jonah, of which you have given a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers, and had been chanted for so many generations in the church. Thereupon arose such a tumult in the congregation, especially among the Greeks, correcting what had been read, and denouncing the translation as false, that the bishop was compelled to ask the testimony of the Jewish residents (it was in the town of Oea). These, whether from ignorance or from spite, answered that the words in the Hebrew manuscripts were correctly rendered in the Greek version, and in the Latin one taken from it. What further need I say? The man was compelled to correct your version in that passage as if it had been falsely translated, as he desired not to be left without a congregation—a calamity which he narrowly escaped. From this case we also are led to think that you may be occasionally mistaken. You will also observe how great must have been the difficulty if this had occurred in those writings which cannot be explained by comparing the testimony of languages now in use." (Ep. 71A, 3.5)
     Gamble was highlighting this event as an example of how certain early Christian writings were read in the worship of the church and how the regular public reading of a work helped to ensure its canonization in the Church councils of later centuries. I find it interesting that the congregation took issue over the change of a single word from that which they were accustomed to hearing. Though this incident occurred in the 5th century, it is highly likely that we could postulate this same result if a word were changed in a book that was being read to a 2nd century Christian congregation. This event underlines the stabilizing nature that the regular public reading of a New Testament work would have had on the text of that work. In an earlier post Eusebius (writing in the early 4th cen.) wrote about an event that took place ca. 200 CE where some adoptionists were altering the text of the New Testament to better support their views. Perhaps the wider members of the Christian community learned of these changes when these altered manuscripts were publicly read in worship gatherings.
    [1] “Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the New Testament Canon.” Pages 27-39 in The Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels - The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45. Edited by Charles Horton. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 258. Edited by Mark Goodacre. NewYork: T & T Clark, 2004.--see pages 37-38.


      1. Here is an update, Timothy.

        The reference in Augustine's story seems to be Jonah 4 where the "gourd" is translated as "ivy" in the Latin. Jerome and Augustine seemed to go back and forth on this one, with the crux of the problem being whether one defers to the LXX or to Hebrew and other Greek translations (e.g. Aquila).

        I'm not sure why the people would have been so upset with the "ivy" rendering, and it seems that Jerome's position would have been backed by Jewish scribes. But the key issue seems to be the authority of the LXX. I'm not sure how this concern relates to the NT: it could be that the people would have been more sensitive about any variation in the NT, or this could be a translation issue from Hebrew that doesn't apply to the NT. As Justin had pointed out, there was a suspicion of Jews changing the OT text for polemical reasons, and also a veneration of the LXX as an inspired translation.
        At any rate, the peculiar practice of not looking at another copy of the LXX is now explained: the LXX wasn't what Jerome was using. The congregation would not have pointed to the Hebrew or Aquila, even if they temporarily deferred to Jewish scholarship. When the answer given by the Jews was not satisfactory, they simply rejected it.
        These issues don't really apply to the NT in the same way.
        Here is a link to where I found some info on the exchange between Jerome and Augustine:ק%D6%B4יקָיוֹן-kikayon-in

        1. Thank you Tim. Yes, the source I was using (Gamble) did discuss this. I appreciate the footwork you put into discussing this particular interchange between Augustine and Jerome. I will respond to your excellent comments here and in your previous posts in the very neer future.

      2. Tommy Wasserman also mentions this in:
        “The Early Text of Matthew,” in The Early Text of the New Testament [eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012] 106)

      3. Thank you for the reference Kenneth. I have read Tommy's work, but do not recall him mentioning it. I will be sure to take a look!

      4. It should be easy to track down the continued correspondence between Augustine and Jerome about this. Jerome was very confident that his rendering was correct.

      5. Here are some references:

        Michael Marlowe has a nice layout of their discussion:

        Correspondence of Augustine and Jerome concerning the Latin Translation of the Bible

        Back in 1588, this was referenced in the William Whitaker book:

        A Disputation on Holy Scripture: Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton, Volume 45 (1588, 1849 edition)
        William Whitaker

        Jonah and the “Gourd” at Nineveh: Consequences of a Classic Translation (2006)
        Jules Janick and Harry S. Paris

        Augustine's Text of John. Patristic Citations and Latin Gospel Manuscripts.
        Hugh Alexander Gervase Houghton
        Earlier Paper

        Augustine's Citations and Text of the Gospel According to John
        Hugh Alexander Gervase Houghton
        see p. 57 for Jonah

      6. John Sandys-Wunsch says that the reason this was especially important was "paintings by Christian artists", an idea that I pass on without comment, or checking the history of the explanation.


        What Have They Done to the Bible?: A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (2005)
        John Sandys-Wunsch

        The reaction of the parishioners was caused, not by pure antiquarianism, but because of their affection for the paintings of Christian artists, who had linked the story of Jonah to the popular pagan image of the bower of gourds. Turning the gourd into ivy would be like saying the Christmas tree should be replaced by a dandelion.


        The bibliography in the Facebook discussion will be kept more complete.

        Augustine on Jerome's translation
        Timothy Mitchell