The Vulgate — Jerome’s idea?

For much of what we believe we know about the origins of Jerome’s revision of the Latin Bible, Jerome himself is our only source.1 To read Jerome’s version of events, we come away with the picture of a persecuted scholar obediently fulfilling a commission from Rome to restore the variant-ridden texts of the Latin church, while virtually directing the course of the Latin version from a cell in Bethlehem. From his self-portrait as innocent victim of unwarranted attacks to his complaints about the ignorant masses incapable of appreciating his vision of the authority of the Greek and Hebrew versions, Jerome’s rhetoric shines when polishing his own literary image.

To judge the effectiveness of Jerome’s rhetoric, we might consider B. M. Metzer’s account of the Vulgate’s origins:

“… various people, at various times and in various places, with varying degrees of success, had translated various parts of the Bible into Latin. The result was chaos. The different versions had become so mixed and corrupt that no two manuscripts agreed. Accordingly Pope Damasus (366–84) undertook to remedy this intolerable situation, and the scholar to whom he entrusted the arduous task was the great biblical scholar of the ancient Latin Church, Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus, known to us today as St. Jerome.”2

It is evident that Metzger essentially accepts Jerome’s version of events, reciting Jerome’s Preface with scarcely a hint about the potential dangers of such a one-sided account (or Jerome’s tendency to produce such accounts):

“Although we do not have the original request of the scholarly Damasus … we can judge from Jerome’s Preface to his revision of the four Gospels … how he regarded the Pope’s mandate. … There were two reasons … which prompted Jerome to incur such an amount of opprobrium [i.e. for altering the biblical text]. The first reason, as he goes on to say in the Preface, was the command laid upon him by Damasus, the supreme pontiff. The second was the shocking diversity among the Old Latin manuscripts.”3

Of course, this is all Jerome’s story: the Old Latin version in hopeless disarray, a hapless church unsuccessfully striving to lift itself above the chaos, a visionary pope benevolently assessing the situation and appointing for the Herculean task a consummate scholar able to accomplish what no one else could, namely, Jerome himself. We find here no real attempt to probe Jerome’s account, whether of Damasus’s commission, Jerome’s obedience to it, or the persecution he accepts for his obedience. But given Jerome’s pattern of self-promotion and exaggeration in reporting events concerning his own personal narrative, such an approach is not without risk in attempting to acquire an accurate assessment of Jerome’s place in textual history.

The Importance of Rufinus’s Account of Jerome

So we are relieved to find in Rufinus’s Apology against Jerome a voice that for once challenges Jerome’s own carefully-crafted and closely-controlled literary self-portrayal. Rufinus’s characterization of Jerome is nearly the opposite of his own. We hear of Jerome’s meanness, pettiness, fickleness, conniving, perjury, deception, self-delusion, and willingness to preserve his literary reputation at virtually any cost.

We cannot forget of course that Rufinus was himself in conflict with Jerome at this time. Moreover, Jerome is able to defend himself on certain points in his own counter Apology against Rufinus. Yet we get the sense that Rufinus restrains himself from revealing all that he could:

“for God is my witness how truly I can say that I have kept silence on many more points than I have brought forward.” (Against Jerome 2.44; NPNF 2.3, 481)

According to Rufinus, he has spared Jerome a humiliating exposure, just has David spared Saul:

“Let us not follow his example [Jerome’s], but rather that of the patriarch David, who, when he had surprised his enemy Saul in the cave and might have slain him, refused to do so, but spared him. This man [Jerome] knows well how often I have done the same by him, both in word and deed; and if he does not choose to confess it, he has it fixed at least in his mind and conscience.” (Against Jerome 1.31; NPNF 2.3, 452)

Rufinus refers to incriminating letters in his possession:

“he [Jerome] knows that I possess a letter of his in which, while he discharges others, he makes his strictures fall upon Ambrose. But, since that letter contains certain more secret matters, I do not wish to see it published before the right time; and therefore I will corroborate what I say by other proofs similar to it.” (Against Jerome 2.23; NPNF 2.3, 470)

Of course, this evidence of restraint only serves to enhance Rufinus’s credibility.

Rufinus on Jerome’s Commission … or Lack Thereof

But one unexpected revelation of the Apology is Rufinus’s apparent belief that the Vulgate, at least as conceived by Jerome, was entirely Jerome’s idea. Rufinus (like Augustine) is especially concerned with Jerome’s preference for the Hebrew scriptures over the LXX:

“But this emendation of the Seventy, what are we to think of it? … This has been the present which you have made us with your excess of wisdom, that we are all judged even by the heathen as lacking in wisdom [for changing the basis of the text].” (Against Jerome 2.35; NPNF 2.3, 476)

Rufinus echoes the sentiments of other writers (such as Augustine) with facetious disbelief, referring to Jerome as a self-appointed “legislator” of the text, acting on his own initiative:

“When the world has grown old and all things are hastening to their end, let us change the inscriptions upon the tombs of the ancients, so that it may be known by those who had read the story otherwise, that it was not a gourd but an ivy plant under whose shade Jonah rested; and that, when our legislator [Jerome] pleases, it will no longer be the shade of ivy but of some other plant.” (Against Jerome 2.35; NPNF 2.3, 476.) 4

Significantly, Rufinus sees Jerome as challenging the authority on which the text stands from that of the apostles to that of his own critical judgment:

“And what are we to do when we are told that the books which bear the names of the Hebrew Prophets and lawgivers are to be had from you in a truer form than that which was approved by the Apostles?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475, italics mine)

“he [Jerome] has altered the sacred books which the Apostles had committed to the churches as the trustworthy deposit of the Holy Spirit” (Against Jerome 2.43; NPNF 2.3, 480, italics mine)

 “… to pervert the law itself and make it different from that which the Apostles handed down to us,—how many times over must this be pronounced worthy of condemnation?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475, italics mine)

“Who but you would have laid hands upon the divine gift and the inheritance of the Apostles?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475, italics mine)

This is no abstract charge. Of course, the apostles were no longer present in person. But the Roman see evidently understood itself to be exercising the same authority. At the Roman synod of 378, during Damasus’s reign, we encounter the first reference to Rome as an apostolic see.5 From a vantage point in Rome, Ambrosiaster notes that

“the succession is preserved beginning with the apostle Peter and handed down to the present time by the succession of bishops” (Quaest. 110.7)6

Meanwhile an inscription on the old Vatican baptistery, ascribed to Damasus, attributes the project vicariously to Peter, head of the apostles:

“Not by human power or art, … but with the help of Peter, pre-eminent [among the apostles], to whom was handed over the very door of heaven, I, Damasus, Bishop of Christ, built this. 7

So Rufinus’s charge that Jerome has undermined the authority of the apostolic text comes close to a denial that he is presently acting on behalf of a pope who claimed to possess apostolic authority.

While Rufinus focuses on the Hebrew translation as in his view the most egregious example of Jerome’s pretension to authority, he also cites Jerome’s Preface to the Four Gospels, suggesting that his criticisms are not limited to the Old Testament translation, but to a certain extent apply to the entire revision:

“To the daring temerity of this act we may much more justly apply your words: ‘Which of all the wise and holy men who have gone before you has dared to put his hand to that work?’ [citing the Preface]” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475)

According to Rufinus, it is Jerome’s “style” to make unilateral judgments according to his “own arrogant authority” on which texts are suitable for the larger church:

“with that ‘censor’s rod’ of yours, and by your own arrogant authority, you make your decrees in this style: ‘Let this book be cast out of the libraries, let that book be retained; … Let this one be counted as Catholic …” (Against Jerome 2.30; NPNF 2.3, 474, italics mine)

Rufinus then states explicitly what he has previously only suggested, namely, that Jerome has no support from any authority in Rome:

“This action [translating the OT] is yours, my brother, yours alone. It is clear that no one in the church has been your companion or confederate in it …” (Against Jerome 2.37; NPNF 2.3, 477)

So Rufinus is apparently convinced that the Vulgate — at least in the Old Testament and apparently in the gospels as well — is solely Jerome’s idea. Rufinus mentions nothing of the commission by the pope that Jerome mentions in the Preface, of which he presumably must have known had it existed. It is clear then that, in Rufinus’s view, Jerome never had the support of any ecclesiastical authority.

How then did the Vulgate prevail? In a fascinating picture, Rufinus depicts Jerome as essentially the director of a scriptorium of his own works, who floods the churches with unsolicited copies of his revision:8

“But how are we to regard those translations of yours which you are now sending about everywhere, through our churches and monasteries, through all our cities and walled towns? are they to be treated as human or divine?” (Against Jerome 2.32; NPNF 2.3, 475)

So according to Rufinus, Jerome is acting entirely on his own initiative with no commission from Rome, while propagating the results by effectively “spamming” the churches and monasteries, cities and walled towns with unsolicited copies of his work.

From the point of view of the history of the text, we must be wary then of accepting Jerome’s claims at face value, especially when contradicted by a contemporary, such as Rufinus, who appears to have known Jerome personally as well as anyone else. In our inquiry concerning the history of the text, we simply cannot afford to accept Jerome’s word as definitive, especially when he is our only source.