How Well Did Jerome Know Hebrew?

It is fairly common when reading about the development of Bible translations to hear that Jerome was among the first who wanted to translate the Old Testament directly from the original Hebrew as opposed to translating from the Greek Septuagint.

Depending on whom you read you could get the impression that Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew was anywhere from virtually fluent to satisfactory. Bruce Metzger described his knowledge of the language as “defective.” (As cited in The Journey from Texts to Translations by Paul Wegner, Baker Academic, p. 256) But consider these quotes from other authors (the bold in all the quotations are mine for emphasis):

Jerome was one of very few early Christians able to read both Greek and Hebrew. As he translated from the Hebrew, his version varied both in content (the LXX having some additions and some deletions when compared with the Hebrew text) and in style . . . (The King James Only Controversy by James White, Bethany House, p. 33)

“Jerome set about perfecting his knowledge of the Hebrew language so he could make a fresh translation of the Old Testament directly from the original language.” (A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman Geisler and William Nix, Moody Press, p. 337)

“Summing up, we can say that Jerome was qualified as a scholar in a way that other Christian scholars were not. Because of his knowledge of Hebrew, he was able to translate the Old Testament from the original language.” (How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot, Baker Books, p. 145)

F.F. Bruce says to do the task of translating Hebrew he “needed to perfect his knowledge of Hebrew and did not hesitate to rely on the help of Jewish teachers.” (The Canon of Scripture, IVP Academic, p. 89) Jerome cites three teachers specifically who provided him with help: “a Jew from Tiberias who helped him with the translation of Chronicles; one from Lydda, ‘reputed to be of the highest standing among the Hebrews’, whom he hired to help him to understand the book of Job; and Bar Anina, who came to him by night at Bethlehem . . .” (p. 89)

One gets the impression that Jerome had sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to translate the Old Testament. None of the authors provide any indication that this is in any way doubted.

With that in mind, imagine my surprise when I read the following paragraph from Karlfried Froehlich’s new book Sensing the Scriptures (Eerdmans):

“Jerome tells of his toil in trying the learn Hebrew and Aramaic, the sweat to translate, his consultations with a Jewish acquaintance (‘Hebraeus meus’) who came to him by night for fear of the Jews. Yet most of this storytelling seems to be hyperbole, if not outright fabrication. Pierre Nautin voiced the suspicion two decades ago, and subsequent studies tend to confirm it: Jerome really did not know Hebrew. He certainly learned Greek well during his first stay at Antioch, where grammatical concepts, textbooks, and teachers were available for this purpose. But nothing like this existed for Hebrew, Jerome could not learn, and thus ‘know,’ Hebrew, as we define the term ‘knowing a language’—that is, having a grasp of the system of forms as well as syntax—except by living in a linguistic community where learning would happen through use. Like Aristarchos, he was a gifted philologist, curious about the meaning of words, and certainly decipher text written in Hebrew letters. He knew numerous words and phrases, and could ask about etymologies and name lore. But could one call this dilettantism ‘knowing Hebrew’? The few sections of the Vulgate that can be attributed to Jerome’s own labors are revisions of existing translations, done by comparing one or more Greek translations, and constantly consulting Origen and Eusebius. His introductions to biblical books and his treatise on the etymology of Hebrew names, which formed part of practically every medieval Bible, were compiled from the same sources and are a dubious contribution to the comprehension of the real literal sense of the Hebrew Scriptures. This does not mean that Jerome’s philological passion had no positive influence. It does suggest, however, that Jerome mislead generation after generation into vastly overrating his expertise.” (Sensing the Scriptures, pp. 31-32. To be fair he does state in a footnote that “[t]he judgment of Michael Graves is far less radical: Jerome’s Hebrew Philology: A Study Based on His Commentary on Jeremiah.)

Jerome’s skills in Hebrew were perhaps not quite what many have made them out to be.

Sensing the Scriptures




About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Bible Translation, Church History. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How Well Did Jerome Know Hebrew?

  1. Y. Bitan says:

    I would side with Michael Graves, cited in passing at the end of the blog, that Jerome had a considerable knowledge of Hebrew even if he did not speak Hebrew then, the way an educated German might speak English today. He may have been better than some.

    Liked by 1 person

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