When, in the later 4th century, St Jerome began his great project of translating the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, the Church in the West had been using for over two centuries a set of Biblical translations made from the Greek text of the Septuagint. These Old Latin translations (as they are now called) were so frequently corrected and revised that Jerome famously complained “there are as many versions (of the Bible) as there are copies.” Hoping to recover for the Latin-speaking West the original text of the Sacred Scriptures, he originally thought to revise the Old Latin by meticulously comparing it with the Septuagint. However, on discovering that the latter had become just as much of a hopeless muddle, he abandoned the project, and decided instead to make a new translation of the whole Bible directly from the “Hebraica veritas”, as he habitually called it, “the Hebrew truth.”
In a letter written in the year 403 A.D., St Augustine reports to Jerome on how these labors were being received.
“One of our brother bishops, when he had decreed that your version should be read in the church over which he presides, came upon a word in the prophet Jonah which was very different from that which had long been familiar to the senses and memory of all, and had been chanted for so many generations. There arose so great a tumult among the people, especially among the Greeks, who reproved it and denounced the translation as false, that the bishop was compelled to ask for the testimony of the Jews. (This was in the town of Oea.) These, whether from ignorance or malice, answered that what was in the Hebrew books was the same that the Greeks and Latins had and read. … The man was compelled to correct (your version) as if it were faulty, since he did not wish, after this great danger (to himself), to be without a congregation.” (ep. 71 ad Hieronymum)
Augustine therefore exhorts Jerome to return to his project of providing the Church with a better Latin translation of the Greek version of the Old Testament, as he had successfully done with the New. The Hebrew word in question is the name of the plant which grows over Jonah’s head to shield him from the sun in chapter four; Jerome had rendered this as “ivy”, where the Septuagint, and the Old Latin which derives from it, had “gourd.” In his reply, therefore, Jerome explains that it was the Septuagint, not himself, that was wrong on this point, and that three other Greek translations of the Bible, all made by Jews, all agreed in calling it an ivy. He also suggests rather archly that the Jews whom the good bishop of Oea had consulted on the matter were either ignorant of Hebrew, or had played a trick on him “in mockery of the gourd-planters”. (ep. 75, Hieronymi ad Augustinum)
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