BMCR 1996.02.12

Jerome’s Hebrew Questions on Genesis

, Saint Jerome's Hebrew questions on Genesis. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. xiii, 274 pages. ISBN 9780198263500. $56.00.

Jerome is certainly one of the most colorful and one of the most learned men in Christian Antiquity. A classically trained scholar who became a Palestinian monk residing in Bethlehem, he was a pugnacious controversialist and was the first real philologian and one of the great biblical exegetes of the early Christian church. His Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin is still the official version of the Roman Catholic Church. His many scriptural commentaries exerted such a tremendous influence on the exegetical and homiletic traditions in the medieval western church that he has been dubbed Doctor Maximus Sacris Scripturis Explanandis. His reputation is still such that a significant, recent one-volume Roman Catholic biblical commentary bears both his name in the title and his portrait on the dust jacket.

While Jerome has never really been “out of vogue”, there have been very few significant monographs concerning Jerome since the masterful study J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies (Harper & Row: New York, 1975). In just the last four years, however, several important studies on Jerome’s biblical scholarship and particularly the Liber Hebraicarum Quaestionum in Genisim (hereafter QHG, following the author’s preferred title Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genisim), have brought the methods and importance of Jerome into sharper focus. Dennis Brown’s Vir Trilinguis: A Study in the Biblical Exegesis of Saint Jerome [Kampen: Kok Pharos] appeared in 1992 and offers a semi-popular overview of Jerome’s training, methodology and skills as translator and exegete, including a chapter devoted to Jerome and the hebraica veritas. In 1993, appeared Adam Kamesar’s study of the QHG: Jerome, Greek Scholarship and the Hebrew Bible [Oxford: Clarendon Press]. This revised doctoral dissertation is a painstaking and thorough study of this oft-cited but seldom studied text which Jerome himself announced as an “opus novum et tam Graecis quam Latinis usque ad id locorum inauditum“.

Now, with this volume of Hayward, we have for the first time a translation with commentary of Jerome’s important opusculum. Jerome was composing this little work at the same time that he was working on his translations of Eusebius’Onomasticon and the anonymous third-century De Nominis Hebraicis. These latter two comprise a veritable Biblical dictionary for the time. QHG was to be the first of a series of volumes in which Jerome intended to comment on every book of the Hebrew Bible, discussing various textual, historical, etymological, chronological and philological questions, and, by a careful reading of the Hebrew text and the non LXX Greek versions, to defend the superiority of the Hebrew text over the official but corrupt LXX version. After finishing QHG, however, Jerome was compelled to interrupt this project as his friends Paula and Eustochium insisted that he translate for them Origen’s Homilies on Luke. He seems never to have returned to this project as he expended his energy on his own, more comprehensive commentaries, translations of other works of Origen and his own Latin translation of the Bible iuxta Hebraeorum. Following the standard format for such a work, Hayward’s volume is divided into three quite distinct units: introduction. translation and commentary.

The introduction is short (pp. 1-27), but concise. QHG has generally been considered to fall into the Questiones et Solutiones/Responsiones format (hereafter, Q & A) that was prevalent in both Classical and Christian literature. Kamesar had already argued very strongly that QHG actually combines both the Q & A format and scholia, already known in Christian circles from the work of Origen. Hayward rather argues, on the basis of a very careful analysis of the usage in QHG of such terms as quaero, quaestio, solvo, solutio, and related terms, that the work is actually to be categorized more strictly as scholia and not at all as Q & A. Jerome refers to the work as a collection of quaestiones et traditiones, suggesting ‘investigations’ or ‘researches’ rather than ‘questions’. QHG is not structured to answer any questions, but is clearly commenting on selected verses of the book of Genesis. In fact, Jerome only comments on an average of four to five verses per chapter. He has no comment at all in chapters 7, 42, and 50. In chapter 1, for instance, Jerome comments only on verses 1, 2 and 10. It is hardly likely that an author composing a work in the standard Q & A style would have bypassed such a standard locus as Gen 1:26. QHG does not follow the stereotypical literary structure of Q & A and the general lack of theological concerns also argues against the Q & A format, as does the lack of such “classical” Christian questions as the origin and the nature of angels and demons, as well as other questions concerning things not found in the Biblical text.

QHG is generally held by scholars to have been composed somewhere in the period 390-392, in a time of great legal persecution of the Jews by the new Christian empire. Hayward opts for late 391 to early 392, based on the admittedly insupportable supposition that Jerome had finished QHG before embarking on his translation of Origen’s Homilies on Luke. As for the purpose of the work, Hayward agrees in the main with the sophisticated argument of Kamesar that QHG is “an apology for [Jerome’s] Vulgate translation and a critique of translations adopted by the LXX (p. 8),” yet he argues further that this work is hybrid in purpose. Hayward points out that there are some 80 instances where the Vulgate does not follow the reading preferred in QHG, and in some 24 places opts for the LXX reading over the Hebrew reading defended in QHG. For instance, Jerome argues in QHG that the oft-commented mrachepet of the spirit/wind of God means ‘brood’ or ‘keep warm’. Nevertheless, in the Vulgate he translates it as ferebatur, corresponding to LXX epephereto. Jerome also avoids certain passages that seem “ripe” for textual commentary, such as the tohu and bohu of Gen 1:2 and 3:22. In yet other places, Jerome’s comments are not at all textual or philological but deal with matters of chronology; many of these simply serve as vehicles for introducing examples of contemporary Jewish exegesis; only when one has the hebraica veritas, can one truly understand the mysterium of the Bible. Hayward thus concludes that Jerome also intended to introduce Jewish traditions to the West, and that it is perhaps this fact even more than genre that constitutes the newness of his opusculum. This argument is confirmed in the prologue to QHG where Jerome refers to this work as a ‘new work’ and as foreign merchandise imported for those who desire it (p. 29).

The translation encompasses pp. 28-87. Hayward has wisely opted to use as the basis for his translation the text of D. Vallarsi as printed in Patrologia Latina XXIII (Paris, 1883) cols. 983-1062, in preference to the error laden text of Lagarde as reprinted in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina. The translation is accurate, flows nicely, and reads well. The English reader will be able to see first hand Jerome’s great learning and command of the biblical versions, though some of his fanciful etymologies will evoke a chuckle or two. Some readers will perhaps prefer, as does this reviewer, that Hayward had used normal English conventions for names and not reproduced the Vulgate forms. There are also a few places where a bracketed name would clear up confusion over antecedents to pronouns; for example, on p. 64 discussing Jacob’s wives, [Lia/Leah] would have been a useful addition for “she”, which might here be taken to refer to either Rachel or Leah.

Not surprisingly the commentary comprises the largest part of the work, pp. 88-245. Hayward provides very detailed commentary on Jerome’s small work. He is fluent with ancient and modern literature and adduces a wealth of material to his commentary and, to this reviewer, this constitutes the most interesting and valuable material of the book. What will be of particular value to readers of this commentary is that its author is not a patrologist but a Semiticist, which means he has access to sources unavailable to most patrologists. Biblical scholars, of course, will be more familiar with this material. In addition, Hayward is a noted Targumist, having already contributed the Jeremiah volume to the Aramaic Bible series along with a number of scholarly articles, and so experienced in dealing with matters of biblical textual versions. But he is also conversant with Jewish traditions which form an equally important element in QHG. In dealing with such a work as this, written by the only Church father who had a real command of Hebrew and contemporary Hebrew literature, this is a necessary background not possessed by patrologists. In his commentary, Hayward culls from such works as the other Greek versions (the recentiores), the Targums, a number of Rabbinic books, Philo, Josephus, many other Christian writings, Gnostic writings, and from the other works of Jerome, especially from his Epistles, a gold mine of biblical material.

If there is any ‘criticism’ to be brought against Hayward, it is that not being a Patrologist he has inadvertently overlooked a few things. For instance, a more careful reading of Ephrem’s Commentary on Genesis might have provided more insights into Judaic traditions available to Jerome. This commentary, full of Jewish traditions and Targumic readings, was clearly known by Severian of Gabala, Jerome’s contemporary and proponent of Antiochian exegesis. Hayward cites Ephrem’s Commentary only once, commenting on Gen 24:9. Ephrem’s Commentary on Genesis contains valuable exegetical material on the number ‘seven’ in the punishments of Cain, the place of Nod, the 120 years granted mankind before the flood, the identifications of Sarah with Iscah and Shem with Melchizedek, to cite but a few instances. Hayward does not cite Severian even a single time. These texts are important IV/V century Christian conduits of Jewish exegesis. Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise are also full of Jewish traditions yet they too receive only one citation. Curiously, Hayward never cites Hippolytus on the blessings of Isaac in chapter 49; this work was an important source for many early Christian writers. It is not clear, but Hayward also seems to cite the Commentary on Genesis of Didymus the Blind according to the partial text found in Patrologia Graeca or the few fragments in the various Catenae collections edited by Devreese, Deconnick, and Petit (the first two of which he never cites). Thus, he seems to have missed the Sources Chrétiennes edition of this commentary based on the much fuller text found at Tura. It is also unfortunate that Hayward did not have access to J. Mahé’s French translation of sections of the Armenian version of Eusebius of Emesa’s Commentary on Genesis. This work, too, would have provided interesting material for his textual work. (A French translation of Eusebius of Emesa on Genesis and Exodus, as well as an English translation of the entire Octatech commentary, are now in preparation.) Hayward also provides English translations of all foreign words and phrases found in his commentary, but such translations as “meccedem, not mimizra” for “meccedem non mimizra” indicates that not all of them are necessary. Such comments as these, of course, are not real criticisms and this material can easily be filled in by those trained in such fields, much as Hayward’s exemplary volume has filled in great gaps for those people by his wealth of knowledge of the biblical versions and Semitic material of the period.