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Rioting Over Jonah

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Peter’s recent article about the prophet Jonah reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the writings of the Church Fathers. Jonah makes three appearances in the traditional Roman lectionary in Lent. During the first week, on Ember Wednesday, the Gospel is Matthew 12, 38-50, in which (among other things) Christ explains Jonah as a symbol of Himself. “For as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” This is a crucial passage for the early Church, since it was read as a prophecy not only of Christ’s Passion, but also of the necessary premise of the Passion, namely, the Incarnation. For that reason, the Lenten Station is held on that day at St Mary Major, the oldest church in the world built in honor of the woman in whose womb the Incarnation took place. The third chapter of his book is then read on Passion Monday, then repeated at the Easter vigil.

A third-century sarcophagus from the Pio-Christian collection of the Vatican Museums. This is one of the best preserved and most elaborate representations of the Jonah story, and is therefore known as the Jonah Sarcophagus, although there are many other ancient representations of the prophet. Note that Noah is seen standing in a square ark above the sea-monster on the right, a clever use of the extra space to add another important Biblical episode.

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)

Stories of Jonah in a late 2nd century fresco in the Catacomb of Callixtus. From right to left, Jonah is thrown into the sea, where a monster is about to swallow him; Jonah is spat out of the sea-monster; Jonah rests under the ivy (or gourd). The Greek and Latin words for “whale” can also mean “sea-monster”, and the creature that swallows the prophet is usually shown as such in early Christian art. His nudity represents the reality of the physical body which Christ took upon Himself in the Incarnation.


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