The Deuterocanon: the Curious Case of Jerome

If you’re just dropping in, feel free to catch up by clicking the Reese Currie tag at the bottom of this post. This is part 3 of his arguments and my rejoinders on the issues of priestly celibacy and (mostly) the Deuterocanon. He’s in red, I’m the rest. Enjoy!

3) I agree that the majority of quotations in the NT are from the LXX, but this was necessary largely to demonstrate to the Greek-speaking world that this was not a new or alien teaching–they could look it up in the LXX. In many places Hebrew is used where it would seem the NT writers deemed the translation faults in the LXX unacceptable. I’m sure no Catholic Bible has an LXX-based Jeremiah, for example (or it would be considerably shorter). Jerome went against the tide by bothering to learn Hebrew and using the Hebrew text (where available) for what became known as the Vulgate. (Jerome is also rumored to have wanted to reject the “apocryphal” books that were not available in Hebrew, but I do not know of a source proving that.) Of course some other OT quotations are merely paraphrased.

The first sentence of # 3 is essentially what I was arguing for 2a. And I’ll grant that it’s very possible that neither the Hebrew nor Greek version in existence at the time of Christ were entirely perfect translations. Jesus used both, but I don’t think that establishes the inerrancy of either version. In fact, if there’s going to be a reliable judge of which version of Jeremiah to use, for example (there are Hebrew versions of the shorter LXX Jeremiah, so the question is: was the LXX first, and the proto-MT a later edition, or was the LXX a translation of a summary of the proto-MT?), we need a reliable judge. Scripture doesn’t answer the question, Jesus didn’t during His earthly ministry, and our guesses would be just that: guesses. The Catholic Church has always taken the longer form, even though this goes against the normal practice of preferring the Greek (to my knowledge, it has not explicitly declared the longer version the correct one infallibly, but two millennia of practice give a good indication of its reliability).

As for Jerome, he’s a bizarre case. To understand where he stands, you have to realize that the early Christians didn’t view the canon as being exclusive. In other words, they didn’t think that once a canon existed, anything not in the canon was therefore uninspired. So a lot of early Christians thought it best to include only those books which everyone agreed upon. In Jerome’s case, he lived in Palestine, and was surrounding by a post-Christ Jewish culture which rejected the Deuterocanon. He, and some other Palestinian Catholics, preferred the then-uniform Hebrew Canon, apparently for this reason. However, Jerome elsewhere quotes from the Deuterocanon as inspired

Additionally, Jerome did include the Deuterocanon at the Pope’s request in his translation of the Vulgate, suggesting that even though his gut feelings might have lead him in one direction, he was willing to submit to the teaching authority of the Church. This tendency to defer to the Bishop of Rome is seen also in Rufinus, one of Jerome’s fiercest opponents. Here’s what he had to say about the Church in Palestine and Jerome specifically, on the issue of the Dueterocanon:

There has been from the first in the churches of God, and especially in that of
Jerusalem, a plentiful supply of men who being born Jews have become Christians; and their perfect acquaintance with both languages and their sufficient knowledge of the law is shewn by their administration of the pontifical office. In all this abundance of learned men, has there been one who has dared to make havoc of the divine record handed down to the Churches by the Apostles and the deposit of the Holy Spirit? For what can we call it but havoc, when some parts of it are transformed, and this is called the correction of an error?

For instance, the whole of the history of Susanna, which gave a lesson of chastity to the churches of God, has by him been cut out, thrown aside and dismissed. The hymn of the three children, which is regularly sung on festivals in the Church of God, he has wholly erased from the place where it stood. But why should I enumerate these cases one by one, when their number cannot be estimated?

This, however, cannot be passed over. The seventy translators, each in their separate cells, produced a version couched in consonant and identical words, under the inspiration, as we cannot doubt, of the Holy Spirit; and this version must certainly be of more authority with us than a translation made by a single man under the inspiration of Barabbas.

But, putting this aside, I beg you to listen, for example, to this as an instance of what we mean. Peter was for twenty-four years Bishop of the Church of Rome. We cannot doubt that, amongst other things necessary for the instruction of the church, he himself delivered to them the treasury of the sacred books, which, no doubt, had even then begun to be read under his presidency and teaching. What are we to say then? Did Peter the Apostle of Christ deceive the church and deliver to them books which were false and contained nothing of truth? Are we to believe that he knew that the Jews possessed what was true, and yet determined that the Christians should have what was false?

But perhaps the answer will be made that Peter was illiterate, and that, though he knew that the books of the Jews were truer than those which existed in the church, yet he could not translate them into Latin because of his linguistic incapacity. What then! Was the tongue of fire given by the Holy Spirit from heaven of no avail to him? Did not the Apostles speak in all languages?

(Rufinus, Apology of Rufinus, Book II, Chapter 38).

It should be noted that Rufinus had an imperfect history himself: his visceral falling out with Jerome disgraced both men, and the two men wrote rather unbecoming things of one another. Additionally, his appeal to the 70 translators is misplaced: most moderns consider that almost certainly a myth. Nevertheless, his other points:

  • that the overwhelming majority of Hebrew-speaking Jewish converts recognized the Deuterocanon as canonical,
  • that this was the historic faith of the Church,
  • that this was the faith of the Church in Rome specifically, having been set there by Peter as the city’s first Bishop, and
  • that the decision to include the Deuterocanon was itself inspired by the Holy Spirit

are all very solid arguments, in my opinion, and Rufinus’ position certainly represented that of the Church collective.

Yet more is coming: 9:00 AM tomorrow, on the dot. See you there!

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