St. Jerome’s Preface to the Pentateuch

June 24, 2010

Preface of the priest St. Jerome to the Pentateuch of Moses, addressed to Desiderius (original Latin)

[his reasons for translating from the Hebrew text rather than from the Septuagint Greek]

I have received the letters I desired from my Desiderius – with some foreboding of things to come, since he took his name from Daniel[1] – asking me, that I hand over the Pentateuch, translated from the Hebrew language into the Latin tongue, that we all may hear it.  Certainly this is a dangerous work, and one that lies open to the barking of my critics, who assert  that I have hammered out a new work in place of the old, to the insult of the Seventy Interpreters[2], thus testing my character as if it were wine: since I have very often borne witness, that I offer what I am able for my manly portion in God’s tabernacle[3], and that one man’s wealth is not defiled by the poverty of another.  The zeal of Origen provoked me to have the courage to do this; he combined Theodotion’s translation with the old edition,[4] distinguishing all his changes with asterisks and obelisk-marks: he makes what was dim before begin to shine out more brightly, and stabs and kills everything superflous; especially in those writings which the authority of the Evangelists and Apostles published.

In these we read many passages from the Old Testament, which are not found in our books: such as this, Out of Egypt have I called my son[5]: and, He shall be called a Nazarite[6]: and, They shall look on him whom they pierced[7]: and, Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water[8]: and, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him[9]: and many others which demand their own σύνταγμα.[10] Therefore, let us ask my critics where these writings are: and when they are not able to say, let us bring them forth from the Hebrew books.  The first witness is in Osee[11], the second in Isaias[12], the third in Zacharias[13], the fourth in Proverbs[14], the fifth also in Isaias[15]; but the many, not knowing this, or disregarding it, follow the ravings of apocryphal writings, and prefer Spanish[16] ditties and jingles to the authentic books.

The reason for error[17] is not for me to explain.  The prudent Jews say it was done on purpose: lest Ptolemy, a worshiper of one God, discover a twofold divinity even among the Hebrews.  They made a great fuss about this, for he seemed to be falling into the doctrine of Plato.  Furthermore, wherever Scripture bears witness to some holy truth about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they either expound it differently, or keep silent altogether, that they might satisfy the king, and not divulge the secret of the faith.  And I do not know who was the first author to build up with his lying the seventy cells of Alexandria, in which they separately composed the same thing[18]: for Aristæus, ὑπερασπιστὴς[19] of the same Ptolemy, and many years later Josephus, report nothing of this kind: but write that they were assembled in one palace, not to prophesy, but to confer and debate[20].

For it is one thing to be a prophet, and another to be a translator: there the Spirit foretells things to come: here, learning and an abundance of words brings across those things it understands.  Unless perhaps we are to think Tullius[21] was inspired by the Spirit of Rhetoric when he translated the Oecumenicus of Xenophon[22], and Plato’s Protagoras, and Demosthenes’ oration in defense of Ctesiphon.[23] Or else that in the same books the Holy Spirit built up evidence in one way through the Seventy Interpreters, but in another way through the Apostles: so that the Seventy might pass over in silence what the Apostles lyingly assert to have been written.

What then? do we condemn the men of old?  No.  But after studying our predecessors’ work, we do what we can in the house of God.  They were translating before the coming of Christ, and what they did not know, they translated in doubtful renderings: but we, after His passion and resurrection, do not write prophecy so much as history: for we narrate things we have only heard differently from things we have seen: what we understand better, we also describe better. Hear me, then, you envious one; you critic, listen: I do not condemn, I do not blame the Seventy: but I am audacious enough to prefer the Apostles to them all.  Christ sounds for me through the mouth of them whom I read to have been placed before the Prophets with regard to spiritual gifts: in which the Interpreters hold almost the highest place.

Why are you tortured by envy? why do you stir up unlearned souls against me?  If anywhere it seems to you that I have erred, ask the Hebrews; consult the rabbis of various cities.  What they have about Christ, your books do not have.  It is another matter, if they have examined the evidence against them that they have usurped from the Apostles, and the Latin texts are more correct than the Greek, and the Greek than the Hebrew.  This is true, the hateful notwithstanding.  Now I beg you, my dearest Desiderius, that you help me with your prayers – since you have made me to undertake such a task, and to begin with Genesis – that I may be able to translate the books into the Latin language in the same spirit by which they were written.


[1] Dan. ix. 23., I am come to show [the word] to thee, because thou art a man of desires. Immediately afterward follows the prophecy of the rejection and crucifixion of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem.

[2] Refers to the Septuagint, the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament begun in Alexandria under Ptolemy II (reigned 283-246 B.C.).

[3] Ex. xxxv. 20-21., And all the multitude of the children of Israel, going out from the presence of Moses, offered firstfruits to the Lord with a most ready and devout mind, to make the work of the tabernacle of the testimony.

[4] Origen (A.D. 185-254) compiled the Hexapla, a six-columned version of the Old Testament that compared the Hebrew texts with various translations, including the Septuagint, which he revised accordingly.

[5] Matt. ii. 15.

[6] Matt. ii. 23.

[7] John xix. 37.

[8] John vii. 38.

[9] I Cor. ii. 9.

[10] “book, treatise.”

[11] Osee xi. 1.  Sept: Out of Egypt I have called his [Israel’s] children.

[12] Is. xi. 1 (A flower shall rise up out of his root).  HB, comm. on Matt. ii. 23: “A Nazarean, if derived from the Hebrew ‘Netser,’ signifies a flower, or bud …”  Sept: A shoot (flower) shall rise up from the root.

[13] Zach. xii. 10 (They shall look upon me, whom they have pierced).  Sept: They shall look upon me, because they have danced (pantomimed, mocked).

[14] Prov. xviii. 4 (Words from the mouth of a man are as deep water: and the fountain of wisdom as an overflowing stream).  Sept: A word in the heart of a man is as deep water; a river wells up, and the fountain of life.

[15] Is. lxiv. 4 (From the beginning of the world they have not heard, nor perceived with the ears: the eye hath not seen, O God, besides thee, what things thou hast prepared for them that wait for thee).  Sept: From the beginning of the world we did not hear, nor did our eyes see a God besides you, or your deeds, which you shall carry out for those awaiting mercy.

[16] “Hiberas nænias”: adj. derived from the Greek Ἱβηρία; n. “funeral dirge, incantation, jingle.”

[17] i.e. of the errors in the Septuagint translation.

[18] The legend that all the interpreters, assigned to individual cells, independently produced the exact same translation is transmitted in the Megillah of the Talmud (c. A.D. 200) and by Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.–A.D. 50).

[19] “champion, protector.”  (Texts have ὑπερασπιςὴς.)  Aristæus is known only from a letter attributed to him by Josephus describing the (legendary) origin of the Septuagint; he claims to be a courtier under Ptolemy.  The letter is favorable both to Ptolemy and to the translators.

[20] That is, they were undertaking a scholarly, not a divinely inspired work; the legend is false.

[21] Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.).

[22] Socratic dialogue, 4th c. B.C.

[23] His most famous oration, delivered 330 B.C.

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