Sermon 25 October 2020 – Trinity XX – Bible Sunday – the Vicar

The subject of the Bible is a vast one to undertake, let alone complete in 5 minutes.

I want to mention one person, who in the history of the Bible stands out. His approach to it is remarkable and gives us a key to interpreting it and understanding it as the whole that it is for us.

We know him as St Jerome. The Latin name of his birth was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymous. We see one many medieval depictions of him, a serious and intent face. Anachronistically he is depicted in a cardinal’s hat, as a onetime prototype of a Vatican official.

He was born in 347 in Dalmatia, modern day Croatia into a wealthy family. He was not baptized until 360 or so, so as a teenager, and this is the period when Christianity is both official and more or less undisputed in the Roman Empire. He studied in Rome, the typical education of a Patrician of his day. Aged about 26 having travelled in Europe, he journey to Asia Minor where he was gravely ill and he experienced a profound personal conversion, which caused him to lay aside his other studies and to concentrate on Biblical study. In some ways this is the most interesting and formative period of his life, from the mid-370s, living almost as a hermit, he sat at the feet of converted Jewish Rabbi from Antioch. Jerome learned from this master Biblical Hebrew. He was probably the best versed scholar of the Old Testament of the Ancient world as a result. In these four years or so his grasp of classical Hebrew was unsurpassed. I shall come back to the significance of this in a moment. He returned to Rome in the early 380s. En route Paulinus ordained him priest. Pope Damasus I greeted his friend and employed him as his secretary, aware that his scholarship was unique. Damasus commissioned Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin. There were earlier beloved texts circulating, translations of the Greek Gospels and the Septuagint [LXX] into Latin. But it was known there were problems of embellishment and scribal error in them. What was the LXX? The Jewish diaspora, notably in Alexandria, was largely Hellenised. A story went in the ancient world had it that the great Ptolemy II, Philadelphus, whose library in Alexandria was one of the great treasures of the ancient world invited 6 scholars from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to meet and prepare a complete translation of the Hebrew scriptures for his library. It is not certain this took place exactly like this, but what is clear is that a pretty standard Greek text of the OT, now known as the LXX was produced by the 2nd c BC and it was almost more widespread in use in the time of the New Testament, than the Hebrew Bible texts, preserved mainly in and around Jerusalem and Galilee. The early Church was dependent on the LXX.

Jerome in the 4th c, in his detailed dialogues with his Hebrew master and many Jewish scholars, understood that although important as a text, it was not original, and so scholarship of the Hebrew would be key for the best work of Biblical translation. After Damasus died in 384, Jerome and other ascetically minded clergy made for Egypt and the Holy Land. They sought to follow the teachings of Anthony of Egypt, the founder of Monasticism. And by 385 Jerome settled. Significantly he chose Bethlehem. Bethlehem is arguably the oldest place of Christian pilgrimage and worship in the world. The church of the Nativity apart from occasional sackings and skirmishes is almost as it was when the mid-6th c by Justinian, and it was very much on the site of the Constantinian church, which itself was built over the grotto the earliest Christians regarded as the place of Jesus’s birth

From 385 until 404 as well as guiding the monks of Bethlehem, Jerome undertook his work of translation. In terms of the NT, he had a tidying up job to do. The Latin fathers who had translated the Gospels had tried to cover up differences between the Gospels, Jerome set about disentangling the errors. To a large extent he was dependent on sources now lost, but they were very comparable to the twin great ancient Greek texts, the Codex Vaticanus (in the Vatican) and the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library.

The work on the Old Testament was even more complicated and it is not surprising this took well over 10 years. Setting the Hebrew text alongside the long-inherited LXX, he like many of the contemporary Rabbis in Judaism, who by then had jettisoned the LXX, recovered from the more ancient texts a more robust translation of the Jewish Scriptures. This was not always popular with Christian exegetes.

The Rabbis rejected several of the later books of the LXX, books like Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, parts of Daniel. Jerome understood perfectly why. They were later Greek texts, devotional and hortatory in nature, but not with the same character as the Law and the Prophets.

The Church though, because its dependence for the last 350 on the LXX had held onto these books. If seen as a whole, the Apocrypha is not quoted once in the NT. Reformers much later would side with the Rabbis, and push for the excising of the whole Apocryphal section of Scripture. This was but one of many things to row about much later. Its origins, in a way unsuspectingly came from the method of Jerome in his approach to the Bible.

This is not to denigrate him, quite the opposite. His method would be employed by later Reformers, Erasmus, Luther and others. He was the Biblical scholar par excellence.

Jerome helps us to see Bible as a whole. Its origins are vast. Our understanding depends on linguistic experts such as he. People prepared to engage with the minutiae of translation, which itself is so dependent on close textual analysis and ensuing exegesis.

Our collect prays that we might hear, read, mark learn and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures. This is a life-time’s work for all Christians. The Liturgy we celebrate is the word of God, scripture, made visible, audible and our life in response is the word made flesh. How we live our lives in conformity with this marking, learning, inward digesting is the proof of our dependence on Scripture. As St Paul says “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord”.

 

 

 

 

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