BMCR 1994.05.11

1994.5.11, Kamesar, Greek Scholarship and the Hebrew Bible

, Jerome, Greek scholarship, and the Hebrew Bible : a study of the Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesim. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. xiii, 221 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780198147275. $46.00.

My image of Saint Jerome, before reviewing this book, was derived mainly from that famous Dürer engraving of the sombre scholar at work in his study with a benevolent lion to keep him company. In this impressive and important book, Adam Kamesar has brought that image to life focusing attention on Jerome in his study at the very moment when he undertakes his monumental translation of the Bible iuxta Hebraeos (according to the Hebrew) into Latin. K. has chosen to examine closely Jerome’s Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim, a textual and philological commentary on certain passages of the first book of the Bible which was written at approximately the same time as the saint commenced work on his translation. Through K.’s careful analysis of this commentary, the reader, as it were, joins Jerome at work and furthermore gets the chance to peek at the titles of the massive books which rest on the window seat in the foreground. Perhaps to our surprise, we learn from K. that Jerome made good use of both the Greek exegetical and Jewish rabbinic sources available at that time in order to resolve various Genesis problems. Yet, K. convincingly argues that the Quaestiones is far from a derivative collection of others’ scholarship as some critics, both antique and modern, have asserted. Rather, in his approach to the Quaestiones, K. has sensibly started from Jerome’s own characterization of this work as an opus novum—an original and innovative work. Taking this claim seriously, K. demonstrates that in the Quaestiones, Jerome presents himself as an original thinker and a more faithful translator of the Bible because he alone asserts the primacy and centrality of the original, Hebrew text while also forging a unique union of the best of both Christian and Jewish scholarship.

K. makes it clear that, in undertaking his version iuxta Hebraeos, Jerome was taking on Goliath. Not only was the task seemingly greater than any one person, but also there existed already the Vetus Latina version of the Bible which was itself based on the older Greek translation, the Septuagint (the LXX). Traditionally, the LXX had a near-magic genesis, as we know from the dramatic story of its translation by seventy sages recounted in the so-called Letter of Aristeas (the exposure of which, as a fake, makes a grand story in Anthony Grafton’s lively Forgers and Critics). Its fantastic genesis aside, K. cites the more mundane reasons why the LXX had so much authority in antiquity: it was believed that the Apostles, as authors of the Gospels, had used the LXX when they quoted Scripture in the New Testament. Furthermore, for some, the LXX even represented a second level of divine revelation directed at the Gentiles: just as Providence had designed that salvation be extended to the nations through Jesus Christ, so too had the divine will arranged that there be a 3rd century B.C.E. Greek translation in order that the Gentiles be eventually brought to the true faith. Thus, the LXX represented for the Christians an important link in the chain of divine revelation and occupied a special position as “the Bible of the Gentiles.”

Obviously, then, it requires both great tact and self-confidence on Jerome’s part to seek to supplant the Vetus Latina, a translation not only widely used in worship, but also directly descended from the divinely-inspired LXX. Yet, as K. demonstrates, Jerome had come to see the inadequacy of the LXX and, good scholar that he was, he had to argue that there must be a return to an authoritative original—the Hebraica veritas—in order to produce, finally, an accurate Latin translation. So the Quaestiones forms part of Jerome’s anti-LXX argument and his justification of his own version iuxta Hebraeos. Also, again contra other Jerome scholars, K. insists that the Quaestiones reveals not a gradually changing point of view about the accuracy of LXX, but rather represents the scholar’s fully-developed judgment. To this reader at least, one of the most impressive aspects of this book is K.’s sensitive and profound explication of the consistency of Jerome’s intellectual stance throughout the Quaestiones.

In Chapter 1 “The Problem of the Text of the Old Testament Before Jerome” K. provides the background to Jerome’s accomplishment through an examination of Origen and his views on the Hebrew text. K. points out that other scholars have incorrectly credited Origen with valuing the Hebrew text either more highly than or equally with the LXX, in part because they have not considered Origen’s approach to Biblical commentary. According to K.’s analysis, Origen operates in “an exegetical maximalism” where even scribal errors may be commented upon as a possible source of divine revelation. Thus, while the Hebrew text of the Bible is an important, but not the central, support for the enterprise of Christian exegesis, Origen’s overall approach, according to K., remains “LXX-centered.”

In light of this background, what factors then led Jerome to his belief in the primacy of the Hebrew text? This question is answered in Chapter 2 “Jerome and the Problem of the Text of the Old Testament”—a chapter which should fascinate any Classicist interested in ancient scholarship, ancient ideas about translation or the value of the Roman cultural heritage in late antiquity. K. argues that Jerome, as a product of “one of the most sophisticated bilingual cultures in the history of man” was capable of and accustomed to appreciating the merits of works not in his mother-tongue. K. shows us that Jerome, as such a product of Roman culture and as a student of Hebrew as well as Greek was perfectly suited to the task at hand. He could clearly perceive and document the inconsistencies that existed between the Vetus Latina and the various Greek translations including the LXX and the later Greek translations of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion (known as the recentiores). Even more clearly, Jerome could recognize the differences between all of these translations and the original Hebrew. Thus, it is not surprising to find Jerome upholding what would seem to us today to be an obvious critical principle: in order to establish the correct meaning of a passage and to create an accurate translation, one must return to the fons—to the original text. Further, K. suggests that Jerome was also motivated to re-translate the Bible into Latin by a literary challenge issuing from those who read primarily for style rather than revelation. Through his new Bible, Jerome would subtly defeat the arguments of those carping pagans who had disparaged the quality of Biblical literature while basing their criticisms on the awkward, un-Classical style of the various Greek and Latin translations. Presenting the Bible anew in his often graceful and more learned Latin, Jerome proves to the Classical pagan world that the Christians, too, had a respectable literary heritage.

Chapter 3 covers issues such as the date and purpose of the Quaestiones while Chapter 4 treats the question of its genre and relationship to other types of commentary current in antiquity. While the dating issue may be of more concern to the Jerome scholar, K.’s clear and efficient discussion of commentary genres and their function should interest all students of the ancient Mediterranean world. Briefly, K. proves how successfully Jerome makes use of both the problem-oriented type of commentary (in which the text is defended against criticisms leveled by others) in conjunction with the more philological scholia type of commentary (through which readings are established or the meaning of the text is clarified). Chapter 5 “Jerome and his Greek Exegetical Sources” is the longest chapter (almost 80 pages) and the most difficult to summarize because it deals in a very detailed fashion with Jerome’s scholarly method. Suffice to say that K. amply illustrates his contention that Jerome both makes use of and consistently goes beyond the Greek exegetical sources in his discussion of problematic Genesis passages. Moreover, K. demonstrates that while Jerome respects the authority of the recentiores, he uses the interpretations of these translations judiciously subjecting them always to the touchstone of the Hebrew text. Chapter 6 deals with Jerome’s use of the rabbinic sources, and although this is a far shorter chapter (16 pages), K. offers a persuasive interpretation of the parallels drawn from the rabbinic corpus to Jerome’s comments in the Quaestiones. The Jewish material is shown to be integral to Jerome’s approach and thus K. concludes that Jerome’s method constitutes a unique “recentiores-rabbinic philology.” Thus, the scholar-saint’s proud description of his Quaestiones as an opus novum is both explicated and justified by K.’s meticulous study of this text.

Despite my deep admiration for what is an exemplary work of scholarship, I must take K. or his editors to task in one regard: crucial passages in Latin, Greek or Hebrew (not to mention the modern languages) are not translated except in Chapter 6. Now, while it is true that many readers will have command of Greek and Hebrew, many others of Latin and Greek, it is also clear that far fewer comfortably read all three languages. As a minimum, in the sections concerning Hebrew word-play, even a simple transliteration would have allowed the Hebrewless reader to recognize the point of the discussion. It seems to me unfortunate that such a fine book has, perforce, limited its own audience. Nonetheless, even if a reader must struggle with the languages and run to keep up with K., whose command of the ancient sources is nothing short of phenomenal, it is well worth the good fight.

My admiration of this book goes beyond K.’s outstanding scholarship, however, and extends to the subtlety with which K. approaches the enterprise of studying the scholarship of our distant predecessors. On the surface, K.’s task and method are traditional: he reads the Quaestiones and uncovers its correct relation to various other ancient sources. This task, however, can be performed as an act of demolition through which the clever critic proves that X never had an original idea in his/her life. K., of course, avoids this attractive trap and instead uses the opportunity provided by source study to situate the author within his cultural and intellectual environment. Jerome’s identity as a Ciceronian or Christian was supposedly settled by his famous encounter with the terrible dream vision. By contrast, K. offers us the reality of a life-long struggle over identity and loyalty emerging from the depths of Jerome’s writing. K. portrays a Jerome in process—a mature scholar still seeking to balance his Christian faith, his respect for tradition, and his deep love of Classical literature with his powerful perceptions concerning the greatness and primacy of the Hebrew language and Biblical literature. Obviously, K. himself, as another such Protean character, is the ideal reader of Jerome, for he moves as comfortably between the same ancient traditions, texts and languages as did Jerome. Both Jerome and his Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim have been well-served by this remarkable book.