Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Jerome Against Lavish Bible Manuscripts

Codex Palatinus
While reading through Hugh Houghton's excellent new work "The Latin New Testament," I came across an excellent reference to Jerome (p. 45; see also p. 45 note 5).

Jerome (ca. 347-420 CE), while residing in Rome, wrote to Eustochium (ca. 384), a woman who had placed herself under his spiritual guidance. In the letter Jerome set out the proper motives for those who wished to enter into a life of virginity. Also included in the letter was a vivid description of the decadence of the city of Rome. Among many other sins of extravagance Jerome mentions a curious trend of the Christians of Rome;
"Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying." (Epist. 22; NPNF2 6:36)
In his Prologue to Job, Jerome wrote that he had worked hard at translating Job from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. In this prologue he described the horrid textual state of the Latin manuscripts of Job. Apparently responding to those who criticized his efforts, he wrote
"Let those who will keep the old books with their gold and silver letters on purple skins, or, to follow the ordinary phrase, in “uncial characters,” loads of writing rather than manuscripts, if only they will leave for me and mine, our poor pages and copies which are less remarkable for beauty than for accuracy."(NPNF2 6:492)
It seems that there where those who only cared about the beauty and craftsmanship of their manuscripts and not the accuracy of the text of the Bible that they contained. Christians also cared more about the appearance of piety, spending their money on lavish copies of the gospels, rather than on the furtherance of the gospel, or on the poor and needy. 
What is particularly interesting is that a "relatively high proportion of early Latin gospel books are written on purple parchment" (Houghton, p. 187). One in particular, Codex Palatinus, dates to the 4th-or 5th century (during the life-time of Jerome) and is written on purple dyed parchment with gold and silver lettering. Judging by the manuscript evidence, it seems that Jerome's criticisms were no exaggeration.


H. A. G. Houghton, "The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts" (Oxford: OUP, 2016).


  1. Hi Timothy,

    Great post!
    Thanks for pointing out the place in "Prologue to Job" where Jerome criticizes the Old Latin for its inaccuracy. I've been trying to collect these places and missed that one.

    In terms of the preservation of an apparently disproportionate number of purple MSS, I wonder if their use was more for ostentatious display than for reading, in which case we might expect their preservation at a greater rate.


    1. Hello Pete!
      Yes, you make a good point about the purple manuscripts. In his comments in the Prologue, it seems like the manuscript tradition (at least for Job) was quite varried. I think that Jerome was emphasizing these extravagant codices as an illustration of misplaced piety rather than making any real quantitative comment on the number of extravagant manuscripts.
      Thank you for reading the post, and for your great comments.