How should we measure jerome's hebrew competence?

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In March of 1701, Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, wrote to the eminent polyhistor, Jean Le Clerc of Amsterdam: ȌI have read with amasement your Exercitations upon the new edition of Jerome's works…You have a peculiar happines of making even dry subjects lively by your way of handling them.” The book that earned this enviable endorsement was Le Clerc's Quaestiones hieronymianae, a polemical tract criticizing the recent edition of Jerome's works, prepared and annotated by the Benedictine monk, Jean Martianay. Le Clerc argued, among other things, that Martianay failed to appreciate the limits of Jerome's command of Hebrew and that the French monk's apologetics on behalf of the Church Father were philologically unsound. Jerome had an uncanny knack for making enemies, but in his own day it was not his well-cultivated reputation as a Hebraist that they called into question, so much as his program of using his presumed Hebrew skills to produce a new Latin translation of the Bible. Rufinus, his most dogged opponent, accused him of being a dupe of the Jews, but not, as Rebenich has observed, of exaggerating the extent of his own Hebrew knowledge–not that Rufinus was in a position to judge. With the emergence of modern European Christian study of Hebrew in the sixteenth and especially the seventeenth centuries, however, the groundwork was laid for a new kind of critique: the new Hebraists took their own measure against the precedent of Jerome's Hebrew achievements, and in doing so found him lacking. Le Clerc was not the first to voice such criticism. For example, his own uncle, David Le Clerc, professor of Oriental literature in Geneva, had already noted Hebrew errors in Jerome's writings, for which he had been taken to task by Martianay. Needless to say, this reassessment and the debate which it engendered were colored also by religious concerns, pitting the Protestant Le Clerc and his less than reverent evaluation of Saint Jerome against the Catholic piety of the Benedictine Martianay. In the final analysis, Le Clerc was the better philologist, and his remarks on Jerome's Hebrew failings in large measure anticipated discussion of the topic in our own day. The most thorough contemporary contribution to the study of the question–if not the most methodologically rigorous–is Burstein's unpublished dissertation from 1971, whose approach is, overall, largely reminiscent of Le Clerc's. Some, especially Nautin, have taken their skepticism of Jerome's Hebrew knowledge to extremes. But recent years have also brought greater moderation and more balanced assessments based on solid philological foundations, the outstanding example being Kamesar's study of the Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesim.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJerome of Stridon
Subtitle of host publicationHis Life, Writings and Legacy
EditorsA. Cain, J. Lössl
PublisherAshgate Publishing Ltd.
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9780754693291
ISBN (Print)9780754664079
StatePublished - 2009

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Andrew Cain and Josef Lössl 2009. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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