When a Universal Tradition of the Church is Wrong

Canon, Text, and Jerome's ad fontes call to the Hebraica Veritas

Gregory Johnson • St. Louis University • Fall 1999




Between 391 and 405, Jerome, the trilingual monk and scholar in Bethlehem, set about the project of translating the Old Testament into Latin.  Jerome's standard for translation was not the Greek Septuagint (LXX) universally accepted among the Christians, but rather the Hebrew text received from Judaism.[1]   For this endeavor, Jerome drew criticism from many sides, not the least being his friend Augustine, bishop of Hippo.  This paper will seek to establish that the primary theological context for these attacks upon Jerome's project lies not in Jerome's rejection of the canonicity of the apocryphal books of Judith, Tobit, Sirach and Wisdom, but rather in the Bethlehem ascetic's controverting of a sacred and near universal tradition within the early church which held the Septuagint to be an inspired translation superior to the original Hebrew.

            Part I of this paper will contend that the canon Jerome upheld through his program of Hebrew translation was essentially the same canon received by most scholars in the church up to the end of the fourth century, and thus not the primary source of disagreement in the controversy.  Though the issue of canonicity was not resolved in his day, Jerome's canon was—for the most part—the church's canon.

            Part II of this paper will argue that, while Jerome's canon was the church's canon, Jerome's text was not the church's text.  This disagreement over the divine inspiration of the Septuagint set up a conflict between the universal tradition of the church and what Jerome would term the hebraica veritas, the Hebrew Truth, which for Jerome was the authentic scripture.  Within the context of this conflict between the Hebrew scripture and LXX tradition, Jerome makes an ad fontes call back to the sources, implying that the original text of the Bible is a supreme authority to which even an ancient and universal tradition of the church must conform.


I.  Jerome's Canon and the Church's Canon

            1.  As Jerome entered into his program of translating the Hebrew Bible into Latin, he did so with the conviction that the limits of the canonical Old Testament should be the same as the limits of the Jewish Bible, a Bible that did not include many of the books fourth century Christians were reading in the churches.  But the canonicity of apocryphal books was not the major objection to Jerome's program of Hebrew translation.  As will later be demonstrated, the objections to Jerome's work centered on his use of a version perceived to be inferior and lacking the inspired completeness of the Septuagint.  The question of canonicity was a related but distinct matter from the question of the text.  Jerome clearly rejected the books outside the Hebrew canon, today commonly called either apocryphal or deutero-canonical (depending on one's perspective[2]).  These books included Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach, and 1-4 Maccabees.  But Jerome's position on this matter of canonicity was not terribly controversial in his day.


            2.  Jerome contends at the outset that only those books included within the Jewish canon have a rightful place within the Christian Old Testament.  In his prologue to Samuel and Kings, the beginning of his program of Hebrew translation, Jerome writes:


This prologue to the Scriptures may serve as a kind of helmeted preface for all the books that we have rendered from Hebrew into Latin in order that we may know that whatever is outside these is to be set apart among the apocrypha.  Accordingly, Wisdom, commonly ascribed to Solomon, and the book of Jesus son of Sirach and Judith and Tobit and the Shepherd are not in the canon.[3]


Even though he later translates Tobit and Judith,[4] Jerome singles out Wisdom, Sirach, Judith and Tobit as noncanonical—and, interestingly, Shepherd of Hermas, which saw canonical consideration, but within the New Testament canon!  This paper will focus on these same four apocryphal Old Testament books (but not Shepherd) since these are four books Jerome specifically singles out.[5]

            But Jerome has a defensive posture in his comments.  He speaks of his preface as "helmeted," obviously with the expectation of opposition.  Yet to what extent might Jerome have expected opposition on account of his limitations on the Old Testament canon?  Is it Jerome's rejection of the apocrypha that requires the helmet?  E. Earle Ellis argues that this is the case, that the helmet was required (at least to a significant degree) on account of Jerome’s rejection of the Greek additions to the Hebrew canon.[6]  However, a survey of canonical development up to Jerome’s day would lead one to conclude that Jerome’s helmet was not needed on account of his limits upon the canon.

            Jerome asserts that these apocryphal books are to be read for spiritual edification, but he adds that they are not to be used for the confirmation of doctrine.  In a catechetical setting, for example, Jerome advises Paula in 400-01 on Laeta’s education, “Let her steer clear of the apocrypha.”[7]  Much literature is edifying, but only canonical literature has authority to confirm right belief.[8]  Jerome would also appear to assume, whether sincerely or for polemical purposes, that this distinction is the accepted practice of the Christian church.  He explains:


As the church reads the books of Tobit and Judith and the Maccabees but does not receive them among the canonical scriptures, so also it reads these two volumes [Sirach and Wisdom] for the edification of the people [but] not as authority for the confirmation of doctrine.[9]


Established precedent was not in opposition to Jerome on this particular point.  Jerome's Hebrew program did not substantially challenge the canon of the fourth century church, and few objections were raised to Jerome’s adherence to the Hebrew canon.  Jerome's distinction between an accepted Jewish canon and non-canonical (but read) apocryphal books was accurately corresponds to the ecclesiastical practice in most of the church up to the end of the fourth century.[10]


            3.  The question of the Christian canon of the Old Testament has received renewed scholarly attention in recent decades.[11]  The watershed study that reopened the discussion has been Albert Sundberg's 1964 work, The Old Testament of the Early Church.[12]  Sundberg challenges the thesis espoused by H. J. Thackeray and R. H. Pfeiffer earlier this century of an Alexandrian biblical canon which was distinct from and more expansive than the Palestinian canon later adopted universally by Judaism.[13]  According to this older "Alexandrian hypothesis," the early Christians adopted the canon of Diaspora Jews, including the apocryphal books, while Judaism adopted the more limited Palestinian canon.  Sundberg brings the evidences for such a hypothesis into considerable doubt and proposes instead a view that the Hebrew canon itself was undefined until the end of the first century.  While the limits of the Law and the Prophets had long since been circumscribed within Judaism, these canonical books were accompanied by a set of Writings whose boundaries were by no means clear.  According to Sundberg's proposal, rabbinical Judaism would delineate the precise canonical extent of the Writings toward the end of the first century CE at Jamnia.[14]  Christianity by that time was already distinct from Judaism, and thus would have to identify the precise extent of its own Old Testament canon separately from Judaism.[15]

            Most scholars have adopted some form of Sundberg's thesis, though not without some qualification.[16]  Early in the Christian era numerous Jewish books circulated among the churches, being read and quoted from alongside the books contained within the Hebrew canon.  With regard to the Law and Prophets, Christians univocally affirmed their full canonicity.  But there was no such unanimity with regard to the canonical limits of the Writings.  Nevertheless, most Christian authors during this period would identify with the limits of the Jewish canon, even while continuing to read and quote from apocryphal or "ecclesiastical" books outside the limits of the Hebrew canon.[17]


            4.  In the Greek East, the earliest comprehensive Christian attestation to the extent of the Old Testament canon comes to us from Melito, bishop of Sardis, writing around 170 in response to an inquiry from his brother Onesimus about the number and order of twn palaiwn bibliwn, "the old books."[18]  Melito's list includes 25 titles corresponding to the Hebrew canon with the exception of omitting Esther,[19] the numbering reflecting not only the omission of Esther but also Samuel and Kings being counted as four books, Chronicles as two and Ruth counted separately from Judges.[20]  Josephus had earlier testified to the presence of twenty-two books in the Hebrew canon, likely including Lamentations within Jeremiah, including Ruth within Judges, and counting Ezra-Nehemiah as one book.[21]

            Likely before 231, Origen presents a list of 22 canonical books "as the Hebrews tradition them," listing the books of the accepted Hebrew canon, though he elsewhere includes within these books Greek additions not accepted by the Jews, such as the story of Susanna in Daniel— passages he suspects the Jews removed to prevent themselves from being discredited.[22]  Origen further notes that the books of Maccabees are outside the canon, and he elsewhere states that the Wisdom of Solomon was "a work that is certainly not esteemed authoritative by all."[23]  Commenting elsewhere on Matthew 23, Origen presents a distinction between books that are useful and books that are canonical, the canonizatas scripturas alone to be used for the confirmation of doctrine.[24]  Despite Origen's use of many apocryphal books, and despite his general preference for he Septuagint text over the Hebrew, Origen nevertheless appears to have adopted the Hebrew canon, adding some Greek additions wherever they fit into existing canonical books.

            Athanasius likewise presents a Christian canon indistinguishable from the Jewish canon except for the rejection of Esther, but (like Origen) he including additions to Jeremiah-Lamentations.  Athanasius is clearer than Origen in distinguishing apocryphal books from the canon, yet still commends their reading.  Having listed 22 canonical books, he continues:


            But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these, on the one hand not canonical, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness.  The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and the so-called Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd.  But the former [22 books], my brethren, are included in the canon, the latter [7 books] being read.[25]


            Other eastern authors follow Origen and Athanasius in rejecting the canonicity of these apocryphal books.  Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nazianzus and Amphilochius all adhere fairly strictly to the books of the Jewish canon (all but Gregory again including Esther, however), culminating in the Council of Laodicea about 360 which listed a 26-book Old Testament canon, adding only the Letter of Baruch and Epistle of Jeremy (which were seen as appendages to Jeremiah) to the Jewish canon.  The council, in its fifty-ninth and sixtieth canons, prohibited the reading of any other apocryphal literature in the church.  Other than pseudo-Chrysostom,[26] no eastern list of the canon includes the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Judith or Tobit.  And none of the eastern lists includes any of the books of Maccabees.


            5.  Only in the Latin West do these apocryphal books receive any full canonical consideration—and that only relatively late in comparison to Melito (170) or Origen (before 231).  Indeed, the western churches produced no list of canonical books before the fourth century, and it is the North African Mommsen Catalogue from 359, likely expressing popular usage in the North African church, that first includes Tobit, Judith, Sirach and Wisdom within the canon.[27]  A synod at Rome had affirmed the canonicity of the apocryphal books in 382 under Damasus.[28]  The North African Augustine's list in De Doctrina Christiana includes these same apocryphal books, as well as 1 and 2 Maccabees.[29]

            Canonical lists elsewhere in the West, as in the East, maintain more closely the content of the Jewish canon.  About 367, Hillary of Poitiers, for example, specifies only the 22 books of the Jewish canon as comprising the Christian Old Testament, but he adds that readers may add Judith and Tobit, and thus "count twenty-four books."[30]  Indeed, Jerome had copied Hillary's commentary on the Psalms—with its list of canonical books—for Rufinus while in Gaul.[31]  Rufinus himself (if he may be discussed here) limits the canon to the 22 Jewish books, appealing to the "records of the fathers" (ex patrum monumentis) to justify his list.  For Rufinus, only these 22 books held canonical status.  Yet Rufinus adds a second class of literature—the ecclesiastical, including Wisdom, Sirach, Tobit, Judith and Maccabees—which might still be read, but which could not be used "for the confirmation of doctrine" (ex his fidei confirmandam).  Yet a third class of literature is added, which Rufinus terms the apocryphal, which is strictly prohibited from the life and worship of the churches.[32]


            6.  Thus it would not be Jerome's denial of the canonicity of the deutero-canonical books that would raise objections from critics, even (surprisingly) from those in North Africa.  There is scarcely any objection to Jerome’s teaching on this matter.  Even Augustine, who spells out a different canon than Jerome in his own work, does not object to Jerome’s canon in his correspondance with the monk of Bethlehem.  The extent of the Old Testament canon was as yet an unresolved issue among the churches.  But despite the genuinely high regard given the apocryphal books of the Old Testament within the usage of the church, the church outside of North Africa and Rome would appear to have viewed these books as useful and ecclesiastical, but as less than canonical.  Insofar as there was a canon, the Jewish canon was the canon of the early church—even if the Septuagint was the text of the early church.[33]  Jerome's adherence to the Jewish canon remained the standard in most of the church at the close of the fourth century.  While some Septuagintal additions to Daniel or Jeremiah were accepted by the churches, and while 1 Esdras may have been included by many, most lists of the Christian Old Testament canon were in line with the canon as defended by Jerome.

            Jerome's preface to his Hebrew program of translation, it can be solidly argued, was not so mush "helmeted" against charges of rejecting a part of the Christian canon.  Rather, Jerome's helmet was necessary because Jerome was challenging an assumption about the divine origin of the Septuagint that had become by the fourth century a universal tradition within the Christian church, a tradition which—Jerome argued—was wrong.  The tradition about the LXX was in error, Jerome would contend, and the Bible in its original language, the hebraica veritas, was necessary to correct that errant tradition.



II.  Jerome's Text & the Church's Text

            1.  The Septuagint's history began during the intertestamental period.  According to the Letter of Aristeas, the books of the Pentateuch were translated during the reign of Philadelphus, who ruled between 285 and 247 BCE.  According to this account, Seventy-two Jewish elders gathered in Alexandria and translated the five books of Moses from Hebrew into Greek.  While the title Septuagint properly applied only to the Pentateuch, over the next 150 years other Greek translations of additional Jewish books became identified with the LXX—translations of differing styles, some very literal, others so loosely translated as to barely count as paraphrases.  By the end of the second century BCE, most of the Hebrew books were available in Greek.[34]

            But by the second century CE several other more literal Greek translations were becoming available, most notably that of Aquila, a Greek proselyte to Judaism.  Aquila's translation was followed by translations by Theodotion and Symmachus, also in the second century CE.  While Aquila had sought to render his text directly from the Hebrew, Theodotion's work was actually a reworking of the LXX, correcting it at points where it diverged from the Hebrew.[35]  The version of Symmachus returned to the practice of Aquila, as would most later versions, beginning with the Hebrew, but Symmachus displays a greater concern to render the text into a more formal Greek.[36]  These translations by Aquila, Theodotion and Symmachus were not enfolded into the LXX, but stood alone as separate editions of the Hebrew Bible.


            2.  By the time Jerome began his work of translating the Hebrew Scriptures in 391, the Septuagint had come to be received universally as the Old Testament of the Christian Church.  Few Christians in the East had access to the Hebrew, and fewer in the West.  Irenaeus had believed that the apostles had used the Septuagint text in writing the New Testament, a belief that became common within the early church.[37]  Indeed, Augustine cites this apostolic use of the LXX in questioning the value of Jerome's Hebrew translation project.[38]  Eusebius defended his own use of the Septuagint by asserting that the apostles themselves had transmitted the LXX text to the church, a view echoed by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Rufinus, who adds that this apostolic decision was conscious and deliberate.  Chrysostom draws out a great chain of transmission of the Old Testament from Moses and the Prophets to Ezra to the Seventy through Jesus to the Apostles and down to the Gentiles.[39]  By Jerome's day, the Septuagint was the Old Testament of the Christian church.


            3.  In the midst of this general Christian preference for the Septuagint text, Origen compiled his Hexapla, a collection of the available Old Testament texts, about 240.  Seeking to give Christian scholars armor for their debates with the rabbis (who could more easily reference the Hebrew), Origen lays out the various Old Testament translations in six parallel columns.  He presents first the Hebrew text, then a Greek transliteration, followed by Aquila's most literal version, then Symmachus' literal but polished edition, followed by the Septuagint text, and finally Theodotion's revision of the Septuagint.  Origen then edited the LXX text with a philological text critical apparatus, indicating LXX passages that were not in the Hebrew.  While Origen himself insisted that the Septuagint text should be used in the churches on account of its tradition, he nevertheless corrected proper names and the order of words to better reflect the Hebrew original.[40]

            Still, it was not always the older text of the Septuagint that was read in the churches.  By Jerome's day, the Christian Lucian's late third century revision of the LXX text, with its shift from Hellenistic to the more fashionable attic style of the day, had superseded most other textual forms in Christian usage.[41]  But alongside the older recension recorded by Origen and popular in Palestine, and alongside Lucian's edition, a third recension, that of Hesychius—presumably from about 300—had gained acceptance in Egypt, so that by Jerome's day at least three LXX versions were competing for the acceptance of the Christian church.[42]  Indeed, even a stalwart defender of the LXX tradition like Augustine would complain to Jerome that "the Greek text contains so many divergent readings in different manuscripts that it is almost intolerable."[43]


            4.  Yet despite the discrepancies between competing versions of the Septuagint, Christians not only accepted the Septuagint, but also considered it inspired and therefore superior to the Hebrew.  The LXX tradition completed and perfected the original Hebrew text, providing an inspired and authoritative interpretation of the original biblical wording.  As noted above (2), Christians understood the Septuagint to have been passed down directly from the Apostles who, it was believed, had used it in writing the New Testament.  The Septuagint translation, Eusebius even suggests, was not only designed by God to bring salvation to the Gentiles, but the role of Ptolemy Philadelphus, a Gentile king, in authorizing the work of the Seventy itself prefigures the salvation of Gentiles in the Christian church.[44]

            And we see further a notion of inspired oral tradition becoming fused with the Hebrew text to produce the Septuagint.  Hillary of Poitiers states that the translators of the Septuagint received a secret tradition handed down from Moses.  This tradition enabled the Seventy to produce an infallible translation of the original biblical text, but not merely a translation.  Indeed, the LXX went beyond mere translation to actually improve upon the Hebrew such that the Septuagint became the authoritative interpretation for Gentiles—the Hebrew now being superfluous.[45]  Thus the divinely inspired Hebrew scripture became fused with a divinely inspired oral tradition, this fusion codified as the Septuagint.[46]

            Eusebius argues that God oversaw the translation of the LXX to assure its accuracy in preparation for the establishment of the Gentile church.[47]  Any discrepancies between the original Hebrew and the LXX were therefore not errors, but positive changes inspired by God in accordance with the broader change in divine economy from Old Testament Judaism to New Testament Gentile Christianity—a conclusion perhaps first explicitly drawn out by Epiphanius.[48]  Citing the legend that all seventy-two translators came to the same translation independently, Augustine explains both this divine inspiration of the Septuagint and its implication.  He writes:


            In all the more learned churches it is now said that this translation [LXX] was so inspired by the Holy Spirit that many men spoke with the mouth of one.  It is said and attested by many of not unworthy faith that, although the translators were separated in various cells while they worked, nothing was to be found in any version that was not found in the same words and with the same order of words in all of the others.  Who would compare any other authority [re: the Hebrew text] with this, or, much less, prefer another?  ...Therefore, even if something is found in Hebrew versions different from what they have set down, I think we should cede to the divine dispensation by which they [the Seventy] worked.[49]


            The churches by the fourth century had come to view the Septuagint as a text superior to the Hebrew original, a divinely inspired interpretation and completion of the words of the ancient Hebrew scribes.  While there was occasional interest in the Hebrew text on the part of some Christians before Jerome—Melito, Origen, Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus—no patristic source before Jerome argued that the Hebrew was superior to the text transmitted through the Greeks for this Gentile dispensation.  The LXX represented an indivisible fusion of the “original” scripture or “urtext” with a supposedly divine oral tradition, an interdependence Jerome considered invalid—an intertwining of divine and human which he would insist should be corrected with the hebraica veritas.


            5.  It is against this fusion of scripture and tradition that Jerome issues his ad fontes call back to the hebraica veritas.  But before proceeding with this discussion, it is first necessary to deal with one potential objection.  The description of Jerome's appeal as being an ad fontes appeal will likely raise the accusation of being anachronistic.[50]  While the phrase is usually applied to fifteenth century humanists who sought to reach backward to an earlier classical era to provide a norm for matters of art, religion, learning and culture, the term applies equally well at this point to Jerome.  As Guy Bedouelle explains, the ad fontes call is founded upon a sense of one's historical distance from a normative past.  He writes, "One had to realize how distant one was from... biblical... sources in order to attempt a return to them."[51]  Inherent in Jerome's argument for the hebraica veritas is both a presupposition of the normativity of the “original” text, and a perspective of historical distance from this norm by which a declension is perceived, requiring a return to the sources.  This presupposition of an earlier normative text from which the church has fallen manifests itself in Jerome on two counts: a concern for textual transmission and a concern for textual translation.


            6.  Jerome was convinced that the hebraica veritas was superior to the LXX text on account of both its freedom from mistranslation and its more reliable transmission.[52]  The most original text, he assumes, is normative.  In Jerome's view, the contemporary fusion of the Hebrew text (which Jerome considered the original) in an ultimately human tradition of translation (LXX) blurred the church's ability to go back to the "original" biblical sources that were normative within the church.  For Jerome, both accuracy of translation and faithfulness of transmission were serious issues that raised concerns over the value of the LXX for the church.

Accuracy of translation was an issue for Jerome.[53]  Indeed, in an interesting rhetorical reversal of the popular belief that Jews had corrupted the Hebrew text to expunge the gospel from it, Jerome accuses the Jewish translators of the Seventy of conspiring in their translation to hide the coming of Christ from Ptolemy.  Jerome writes:


They [the Seventy] were unwilling to make known to Ptolemy, king of Alexandria, mystical teachings in the Holy Scriptures, and especially those things which promised the coming of Christ, lest the Jews might appear to worship a second God also.[54]


Jerome goes on explain the Jews’ desire not to offend the Platonic (and very monotheistic) Ptolemy.  The tradition of a divinely inspired Septuagint, Jerome suggests, was not only not divinely inspired, it was a calculated act of opposition to the saving purpose of God.[55]  The Seventy intentionally hid the coming of Christ from a Gentile.  This impure motivation on the part of the Seventy made the LXX an impure translation that hid the coming of Jesus Christ.


            7.  Yet added to this concern over translation was a concern over transmission.  As a biblical scholar, Jerome is aware of the historical distance between the fourth century church and the church of the Jesus and the apostles.  From this perspective of historical distance, Jerome can perceive a declension since the apostolic era.  He writes:


            Yet even the Evangelists, and also our Lord and Savior, as well as the Apostle Paul, quote many things as if from the Old Testament, which are not contained in our codices; about which we shall offer fuller discussion in the proper places.  Consequently, it is clear that those copies are more reliable which agree with the authority of the New Testament.[56]


It is evident to the monk in Bethlehem that the Old Testament being read in the churches does not agree with the Old Testament used by Jesus and the apostles over three centuries earlier.  Thus an historical distance is joined in Jerome by this sense of declension from that past.  For Jerome, the church's almost universal tradition of elevating the Septuagint above the Hebrew text was wrong.

            It should be noted at this point that Jerome does not condemn the LXX text in a blanket manner.  Behind Jerome’s concern over the text of the Septuagint lay a concern over inaccurate transmission.  The LXX had not faithfully transmitted the text that was used by the Evangelists and apostles, Jerome asserts.  The text transmitted in Hebrew, he argues, better agrees with the usage of the New Testament authors.  Text was an issue for Jerome on account of transmission as well as translation.  Whether or not Jerome was correct in assuming the Hebrew text received from the Jews to be the better transmission (or, for that matter even the older text!), Jerome considered his Hebrew to be closest to the “original” inspired text.

            And this concern for using the apostolic text should not be too quickly overlooked.  While Jerome challenges the universal tradition of the church at the end of the fourth century, he does so in the name of apostolic tradition.  This apostolic tradition is higher than current tradition and, like the biblical text, is normative.  Jerome uses the phrase ecclesiarum traditiones to describe this apostolic deposit, an authoritative tradition stemming from its apostolicity.  Jerome writes, for example “According to the traditions of the church and the teaching of the apostle Paul, the answer must be this; that we shall rise as perfect men in the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”[57]  The irony is that, for Jerome, some elements of the church’s tradition are authitative, others (like adherence to the LXX) are not.  Indeed, Jerome’s concern to uphold the apostolic tradition of the church is what leads to his rejection of the LXX as the normative Old Testament text.  The septuagint has not faithfully transmitted the text of the apostles.  A concern for apostolic tradition leads Jerome to reject a current tradition, despite its universality among the churches. 


8.  In the preface to his Hebrew Questions on Genesis, Jerome uses the language of restoration (a phrase which assumes declension from a past norm).  Jerome describes a two-fold purpose behind his work, defense and restoration.  He writes:


Therefore it shall be my concern both to rebut the errors of those who make different kinds of conjectures about the Hebrew books, and to restore to their proper authority those things which in the Latin and Greek codices seem to burst forth in abundance."[58]


That is, Jerome seeks to rid the Greek and Latin of the additions that are not original to the Hebrew.[59]  In issuing his ad fontes call, it is Jerome's task to separate this fusion of scripture and tradition, purging the Greek and Latin biblical texts of all that has been added by the human translators and transmitters of the LXX, purging that which was accepted by the churches on account of a false notion if an inspired Septuagint.  Jerome’s language of “restoring” that which has been corrupted over time places his style of argumentation squarely in the ad fontes category.

It is worth observing at this point that behind Jerome’s concern to correct a “corrupted” tradition and return to the purity of the original “urtext” lies an assumption about the nature of biblical inspiration.  Jerome’s approach would appear to assume that the original text is inspired, not the community that receives the text.  There is nothing here of a communal or dynamic notion of inspiration—in contrast to Hillary of Poitiers who saw an inspired oral tradition interpreting and completing the Hebrew to form the Septuagint.  Jerome’s approach presupposes a static inspired text which at one time existed, has been trasmitted faithfully by the Jews, and which remains normative to the present day.[60]

            And (again) it is because of Jerome’s call back to the Hebrew text—not because of his adherence to the Jewish canon—that he needed to "helmet" himself.  Indeed, he opens his Hebrew Questions on Genesis with a lengthy preemptive strike against his critics, calling them "filthy swine" who "grunt against me as being a tiny little man, and trample pearls with their feet."[61]  Jerome's program of Hebrew translation would be understood by all involved in the ensuing conflict as a rejection of this sacred fusion of Hebrew text and "inspired" interpretation, a separating of scripture and tradition for the sake of scripture that Augustine feared would threaten the unity of the church.[62]


            9.  And Jerome's ad fontes approach is not unique to himself or to the Christian humanists of the renaissance.  Indeed, almost every reform movement within Christian history has taken an ad fontes approach, whether distinctively text based (as with Jerome) or not.  This is as true of "orthodox" reform movements as of "heretical" ones.  Jerome hoped to turn the church back to the hebraica veritas because that (he believed) was the text the apostles and evangelists used and was therefore normative.  Carolingian reformers in the ninth century sought to reach backward to Augustine and the patristic church as a norm to be regained.  Francis of Assisi sought a return to poverty, because that is how the Lord lived.  The Protestant reformers understood themselves to be returning to the teachings of the earliest church.  Even the Montanists, who on the surface claimed new prophecies as superior to old (re: biblical) prophecy nevertheless claimed they were simply returning to the prophetical norm of the early church expressed in the book of Acts or in the second chapter of Joel.  The call back to the sources is as old as Christianity itself.


            This investigation has sought to place Jerome within the theological context in which he began translating the Old Testament from Hebrew.  Part I of this paper sought to demonstrate that Jerome's offense in the minds of his opponents was not that he rejected the canonicity of apocryphal books such as Sirach, Wisdom, Judith and Tobit.  Most patristic authors had done the same, while commending these books for edification, as did Jerome.  Rather, as Part II of this paper has established, the controversy around Jerome's Hebrew program centered on his rejection of the almost universally accepted tradition of an inspired Septuagint translation.  The Greek Septuagint was understood within the early church to be the inspired and infallible translation of the Hebrew Bible, superior to the original text in that it served as a completion and inspired interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures.

Jerome's defense of the biblical Hebrew was an ad fontes call, assuming an historical distance and declension, and presupposing the ultimate normativity of the “original” Hebrew text on account of its perceived freedom from the dual errors of poor translation and poor transmission.  While Ellis had asserted that Jerome helmeted himself on account of the two great conflicts of canon and text, Jerome in fact helmeted himself primarily on account of the latter, his assertion of the superiority of the Hebrew text over the Greek.  The question of the canonicity of apocryphal books was not a significant conflict to which Jerome was speaking.  The universal tradition that Jerome controverted was not the church’s canon, but rather the church’s text.






Beckwith, Roger.  The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and its Background in Early, 1985.


Bedouelle, Guy.  "From Humanism to Reformation."  In Pierre Chaunu, ed. The Reformation, 1986, 64-81.


Broyde, Michael J.  “Defilement of the Hands, Canonization of the Bible, and the Special Status of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs,” Judaism 44, 1995.


Bruce, F.F.  Journal of Semitic Studies 11 (1966), 129-30.


Ellis, Edward Earle.  The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon Interpretation in the light of Modern Research, 1991.


Hayward, C.T.R.  St. Jerome's Hebrew Questions on Genesis: Translated with Introduction and Commentary, 1995.


Kamesar, Adam.  Jerome, Greek Scholarship, and the Hebrew Bible: A Study of the Quaestiones Hebraicae in, 1993.


Kelley, J.N.D.  Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies, 1998.


Kraft, Robert.  Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966), 258-59.


McDonald, Lee M.  The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, 1995.


Pfeiffer, R. H.  A History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha, 1949.


Rahlfs, Alfred.  "History of the Septuagint Text," in Septuaginta: Id est Vestus Testamentum graece iuxta LXX interpretes, 1979, lvi-lxv.


Sundberg, Albert C. Jr.  The Old Testament of the Early Church, Harvard Theological Studies XX, 1964.


Thackeray, H. J.  The Septuagint and Jewish Worship, 1921.


White, Carolinne.  The Correspondence (394-419) between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, Studies in Bible and Early Christianity 23, 1990.


Wendland, Paul.  “Die Therapeuten und die philonischen Schrift vom beschaulichen Leben,” Jahrbucher fur classiche Philologie 21 (1896), 693-772.




[1]For a brief overview of Jerome's move from the LXX to the hebraica veritas, see J.N.D. Kelley, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998) 153-67.

[2]Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a neutral term for these books—to label them deutero-canonical implies they are canonical; to label them apocryphal implies they are not canonical.  In Jerome's mind these books were apocryphal, so that is the terminology generally used in this paper.

[3]Jerome, Prologus in Libri Regnum.

[4] Jerome consoles himself by mentioning having heard a rumor that Nicea had considered Judith canonical.  This rumor cannot elsewhere be corroborated.  Still, Jerome does consider the apocryphal books helpful for edification, if not for doctrine; he is not translating books he deems dangerous.

[5] Jerome does not focus much attention on the Greek additions to Hebrew books, such as the Letter of Baruch and Letter of Jeremiah.  The question of these smaller additions appears to have been less a canonical decision and more a text-critical issue.  The question was less about whether Baruch was a canonical book in its own right, and more whether Baruch was an authentic part of the canonical book Jeremiah.  Thus McDonald is misleading when he writes, “None of the early church lists exactly parallels the Jewish biblical canon.”  Cyril’s list exactly parallels the Jewish canon except in concluding that Baruch and Jeremiah’s Letter are authentic parts of Jeremiah’s prophecy, with which they are grouped.

[6] Edward Earle Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon Interpretation in the light of Modern Research (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr—Paul Siebeck, 1991), 32.  Ellis asserts that Jerome’s Hebrew program raised two major issues:  canon and text.  I am arguing in this paper that it raised on one major issue:  text.

[7] Jerome, Letter 107.12.

[8]This begs the question of whether Jerome operated with a principle that approximated the later Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.  Only the canonical books of the Bible, Jerome states, have the authority to “confirm” right doctrine.  This paper will not seek to address this question of sola scriptura.  It can be pointed out, however, that the Protestant reformers who coined the phrase sola scriptura did not use it in opposition to tradition per se, but only to the notion that tradition was of equal authority to Scripture.  Lutheran and Reformed theologians continued after the Reformation to work within the context of the broad tradition of the church, Scripture being given a unique place in confirming what doctrine was or was not to be held.  Sola scriptura does not necessitate a bare inductivism that of necessity rejects tradition, an inductivism that developed among the more radical reformers of the sixteenth century.  Is stress this point here only because of confusion my use of the phrase has fostered among those less familiar with Protestant theology.


[10]Albert Sundberg (see below) argues that the later Roman Catholic canon codified at Trent was the accepted canon of the early church.  His key assumption in defending this thesis is that all those books read and quoted from within the early church were thus canonical.  See footnote 8 below for reviewers who criticize Sundberg for this assumption.

[11] This section is included primarily for background.  This paper is not attempting a full synthesis of the current state of research on Second Temple Judaism or on the canon of diaspora Jews, even if Dan Van Slyke thinks it should.  Such a task is a paper (indeed, a dissertation) in its own right, and is clearly outside of the scope of the present study.  The purpose here is simply to set something of the historical context leading up to Jerome’s Hebrew program.

[12]Albert C. Sundberg, Jr.  The Old Testament of the Early Church, Harvard Theological Studies XX (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964).

[13]H. J. Thackeray, The Septuagint and Jewish Worship, London, 1921; R. H. Pfeiffer, A History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha, New York, 1949.

[14] More recent scholarship (See Ellis, 40) has questioned the significance of Jamnia.  Still, it would appear that a Jewish consensus about the extent of the canon did develop at some point before the end of the first century CE.  Ellis argues against a three-stage view of the Old Testament canonization process, noting that all twenty-two books of the Hebrew Bible were contained in the Qumran library before 68 CE and possibly as early as 152 BCE, when the community broke from mainstream Judaism.  See Ellis, 40-41.  In counterpoint, however, the status of Esther, and to a lesser degree Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, remained debated among Jews for several centuries after Jamnia according to a Michael J. Broyde, “Defilement of the Hands, Canonization of the Bible, and the Special Status of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs,” Judaism 44, 1995.  Whether Jamnia was the crucial moment (Sundberg), or much earlier (Ellis) or much later (Broyde), ceretainly the canon of mainstream Judaism was established by the time of Jerome, which is the only question of relevance for this study.

[15]See also Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985).

[16]Robert Kraft criticizes Sundberg's study for over-generalizing in speaking of "the early church" as if it were a "single, unified phenomenon" and for assuming that parallels in word use (as cited in Nestle's 22nd edition of the New Testament) imply actual use—which they do not—and even canonicity!  Kraft further cites Sundberg for assuming that use of a text implies its canonical status [Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966) 258-59.]  Similarly, F.F. Bruce criticizes Sundberg's assumption that all the books read by the churches were therefore canonical [Journal of Semitic Studies 11 (1966) 129-30.].  However, none of these criticisms necessarily affects Sundberg's basic argument against an Alexandrian canon hypothesis.

[17]For a nearly exhaustive compilation of Christian Old Testament canonical lists, see Sundberg, 58-59.

[18] At least one author casts doubt on Eusebius’ account of Melito’s canon (Lee M. McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, 1995), but offers no substantial reason why this particular piece of information from Eusebius deserves rejection—except perhaps an apologetically-driven wish that Melito’s canon had been otherwise.  It would be a methodological error to reject a priori anything known only through Eusebius.  Such rejection must be demonstrated to have occurred.  And given the fact that all subsequent eastern canonical development followed Melito up to Eusebius’ day, there seems no evident cause to question Eusebius’ accout on this point.

[19]This omission may have been by accident, since Esther usually followed Esdras (Ezra-Nehemiah) and scribal error on similar names was possible.  Esther is omitted, however, in the Qumran lists as well, and was challenged by some of the rabbis.

[20]In Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 4.22.13.

[21]Josephus, Against Apion 1.38-42.  See Ellis, 7.  For a defense of Josephus’ accuracy on this point, see Ellis, 39.

[22]For Origen's canonical list, see Eusebius, HE 6.24.2.  Origen notes that the 22 books are the same in number as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, but Eusebius only lists 21 of them, evidently omitting the Twelve—the minor prophets—by mistake or by scribal error.  Sundberg (135, 137) argues that Origen's list is not a list of the canon as Origen believed it should be, but merely the canon as accepted by the Jews.  Sundberg defends this assertion on the ground that Origen acknowledges a difference between the books included in the Jewish canon and the books read by the churches, Christians having some that the Jews do not use.  Ellis argues against this assertion on the grounds that 1) Origen's pupil Rufinus presents a similar list as the books of the Christian canon and, 2) Eusebius (our only source of Origen's list) understood it to express Origen's own position on the extent of the Old Testament canon.  Origen's comments on Susanna can be found in Ad Africanum 9.  Origen similarly included a "Letter" with Jeremiah-Lamentations, likely either Baruch (though Jerome says the Jews neither read nor possessed Baruch) or the Letter of Jeremiah, though Ellis argues that this passage from Origen may reflect scribal gloss, Ellis, 15.

[23]Origen, De Principiis 4.33, quoted in Sundberg, 138.

[24]Origen, Commentary on Matthew 28, translated from Latin (the Greek is no longer extant) in Ellis, 17.  See Adam Kamesar, Jerome, Greek Scholarship, and the Hebrew Bible: A Study of the Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 19, for a brief discussion of this text.

[25]Athanasius, Letters on the Paschal Festival 39.7.  It is unclear whether the two books of Esdras refer to Ezra and Nehemiah, or to Ezra-Nehemiah and the midrashic Greek Esdras.

[26]See Synopsis Scripture Sacrae in Migne, PG LVI. 314-86.

[27]See Ellis, 25, for a discussion of this work.

[28]See Sundberg, 157, also 149, for discussion.  Ironically, Jerome was secretary to the bishop Damasus at this time.

[29]Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 2.12.

[30]Hillary of Poitiers, Commentary on the Psalms, Preface, 15.

[31]Ellis, 31.

[32]Rufinus, Exposito Symboli 34.  Rufinus' apocrypha corresponds to those books today commonly classified as pseudepigrapha.  Within this category would be forgeries and heretical books.

[33] In a review of this paper, Dan Van Slyke emphasizes the diversity of the early church on this point of canonization, suggesting that the diversity was due to the many divergent canons of the diaspora Jewish groups.  He cites the Samaritans, who only ascribed to the Torah, as an example.  This point is not convincing, given that the Samaritans were considered by mainstream Judaism to be a heretical offshoot of Judaism, and given that the Samaritans were not a dispora group.  The canonical variety within diaspora Judaism is relevant only to the books of Esther, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, not to the books commonly labeled apocryphal or deutero-canonical, which Jews rejected.  This author could find no academic author in the past thirty years who has defended the Alexandrian canon hypothesis, even in Dan’s multivalent incarnation.

[34]"History of the Septuagint Text," in Alfred Rahlfs, ed. Septuaginta: Id est Vestus Testamentum graece iuxta LXX interpretes (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979) lvi-lxv.


[36]Symmachus, for example, prefers longer sentences with participial constructions, turning main clauses from the Hebrew into subordinate clauses, so as to achieve a higher Greek style.

[37]Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.21.3.

[38]Augustine, Letter 70.  Augustine reminds Jerome that he himself had previously affirmed this.  Even much later in their correspondence, Augustine still affirms the apostolic approval of the LXX.  Augustine, Letter 82.  See Carolinne White, The Correspondence (394-419) between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, Studies in Bible and Early Christianity 23 (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

[39]Kamesar, 29.

[40]Ibid., lxii-lxiii.  Rahlfs argues that the order Origen chooses, along with his tendency to "correct" the LXX, indicates the high likelihood that Origen considered the Hebrew the most authoritative.

[41]Rahlfs, lxiv.

[42]Ibid., lxv.

[43]Augustine, Letter 70.  Apparently not realizing that the Seventy had only translated the Pentateuch, Augustine appeals to Jerome to produce a Latin translation of the Greek text based upon the original Greek text translated by the Seventy.

[44]Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 8.1.6-7.  See Kamesar, 30, for discussion.

[45]Hillary of Poitiers, Tractatus super Psalmos 2.2-3.  See Kamesar, 32, for discussion.

[46]Despite the general theological direction of this paper, this author loves the Septuagint.  Ask him to show you his tattoo: KAI THN DOXAN MOU HETERW OU DWSW.

[47]Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 8.1.6.

[48]See Epiphanius, De Mensuris et Ponderibus 6.  See Kamesar, 34.

[49]Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 2.22.  For a point of contrast, Augustine is more hesitant on this point when addressing Jerome.  Augustine writes to Jerome, "I say nothing of the Seventy for I would not dare to give any kind of answer to the question of whether they possessed a greater harmony of wisdom or of inspiration than one man could have..." Letter 28.  Here Augustine assumes the LXX to bear wisdom and inspiration, but he presents himself as uncertain as to whether the whole received greater inspiration than merely one translator might have been given.

[50] Jerome, it might be mentioned, uses the phrase ad fontes on at least seventeen occasions, but never in this context.  The phrase ad fontes would not develop its technical meaning as describing a type of argumentation until the early modern period.  Jerome’s use of the term is on each occasion in reference to Psalm 41, ad fontes aquarum.  I am indebted to Dan Van Slyke for taking note of this usage.

[51]Guy Bedouelle, "From Humanism to Reformation."  In Pierre Chaunu, ed. The Reformation (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 65.

[52]Jerome insists that his own translation of the Hebrew has not included any of his own personal ideas.  Rather, he says he "only translated the divine texts as I found them in the Hebrew."  Jerome, Letter 112.

[53] The general direction of scholarship since Paul Wendland’s 1896 study has been to minimize this concern over translation in favor of a concern over transmission.  Jerome mentions both, however, even though his purposes for either may be largely polemical.

[54]Jerome, Preface to Hebrew Questions on Genesis.

[55]Jerome apparently persuades Augustine on this point to the extent that the current LXX text is recognized as a Jewish corruption, but Augustine further questions Jerome as to the possibility that it was later Jews, and not the original Seventy, who perpetrated this evil act.  See Augustine's Letter 82.

[56]Jerome, Preface to Hebrew Questions on Genesis.

[57] Jerome, Letter 108.25.  Again, I am indebted to Dan Van Slyke for this qualification.  See also In Danielum 6.10.


[59]C.T.R. Hayward, St. Jerome's Hebrew Questions on Genesis: Translated with Introduction and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) 93.

[60] A similar difference continues today in the way orthodox Roman Catholics and Protestants view the biblical documents, the former tying the authority of the text organically into the authority of the community, the latter separating the two, the text being exclusively understood to be over the community.

[61]Jerome, Preface to Hebrew Questions on Genesis.

[62]Augustine expresses a concern for the unity of the church in his Letter 71, informing Jerome of the conflict that arose in Oea (Tripoli) over Jerome's translation of Job from the Hebrew.