Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter J


Thanks to all (20 of you) who voted for tonight’s J-Father on the blog. For the past twelve years I’ve devoted my preaching turns in July to the Church Fathers, those personalities who through the early centuries of Christianity shaped and codified our faith. I’ve tackled them a letter at a time, which brings me this year to the letter J (and yes, I can count, it just took me three years to get through letter A). I’ve taken some liberties in my definition of “church father,” having included both women and later saints in my survey. But tonight, due to your vote, I’m back on safe ground as I speak not only of an indisputable father, but one of THE Eight Great Church Fathers along with Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil and Gregories the Great and Nanzianzus. With 61% of the vote I bring you Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and scholars whose faithfulness gave us the Vulgate, the towering translation of the Hebrew and Greek Bible into Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. The Vulgate was the pew Bible in every church for more than 1000 years.
Vulgate comes from the Latin word meaning vernacular or common language; the same root from which we also get the word vulgar. And Jerome could be that too. “A fat paunch never breeds fine thoughts,” he said, and “A friend is long sought, hardly found, and with difficulty kept” as well as “do not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Speaking of gifts, he had little tolerance for tightfisted Christians, mocking them with a takeoff on the words of St. Peter, “Faith and mercy have I none, but such as I have, silver and gold, in the name of Jesus Christ I don’t give you that either.” Likewise he mocked pretentious pastors who fancied expensive clothes and long beards, “The only thought of such men is their clothes—are they pleasantly perfumed, do their shoes fit smoothly? And if there is any holiness in a beard, nobody is holier than a goat!” Of these ministers he said, “It is bad enough to teach what you do not know, but worse to be ignorant of your ignorance. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Renaissance artists commonly depicted Jerome poorly cloaked in red, with a skull and crucifix nearby [ARTWORK]. An ascetic, the red denotes his being one of the great church doctors, the skull a reminder of mortality, and the crucifix the symbol of Christ’s redemptive suffering for sin. Moreover, these works always depict him hunched over his translation of the Scriptures. “Make knowledge of the Scriptures your love,” he wrote, “Live with them, meditate on them, make them the sole object of your knowledge and inquiries.” Here Jerome echoes St. Paul in Romans 15: “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,” verse 4, “so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” As Christians, the Scriptures are the source of our knowledge and hope in God. Park Street’s Statement of Faith, reverently receives and believes “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” However I trust you know that the Bibles you hold in your hands are not themselves “the infallible word of God.” What I mean is that your Bibles do not contain the actual letter of Paul to the Romans, but rather an English translation which is a revision of a host of other English versions of translations, many influenced by Jerome’s Latin, based upon a Greek copy which is itself a copy of many copies of a many pieces of copies of manuscripts, the earliest piece of a manuscript, called P46, which dates from around the third century AD. We do not have Paul’s original letter to the Romans itself, which is why many Christians when speaking of an infallible Bible add the caveat “original documents” to distinguish the inspired authors’ work from those who copied and translated (sometimes erroneously) through the centuries. Jerome himself wrote, “I am not so stupid as to think that any of the Lord’s words either need correcting or are not divinely inspired, but the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved faulty by the variations which are found in all of them.” Jerome acknowledged his own fallibility and made a few translation errors himself. His most famous mistranslation had to do with Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai after meeting with God. Exodus describes Moses’ face as “radiant,” or more woodenly, that he had “rays of light” coming from his head. The Hebrew word “be radiant” can also mean “be with horns,” which is the meaning Jerome chose and why it is when you visit Saint Peter’s in Rome, Michelangelo’s famous 16th century sculpture of Moses looks like THIS. Jerome’s translation of Romans 15, our passage for tonight, is not that far off. The English version of the Vulgate, known as the Douay-Rheims (completed around 1610), renders verse 4 thusly: “For what things soever were written, were written for our learning: that through patience and the comfort of the scriptures, we might have hope.” Compare that to the King James Version, completed soon after the Douay-Rheims, and you can hear the influence of Jerome: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Christened Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, no one is sure how he came to go by “Jerome,” though most are glad that he did. By age 30 he was already considered the smartest scholar in Christendom, and remains the preeminent figure (and patron saint) of Bible translation. Born to rich parents near modern-day Slovenia in 347, he studied in Rome and was baptized there when he was 19. Getting a Roman education usually meant a lot of field trips, but what most impressed Jerome in his travels was not the Empire’s glamour, but rather the counter-cultural asceticism he witnessed in reaction to the Empire’s excesses. By Jerome’s time, Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, which in the minds of many, only succeeded in making the formerly persecuted Christians soft. Worried that any faith legitimized by government only takes away its saltiness (as evangelicals in America are well aware), many serious Christians took off for the desert to live lives set apart from the emerging status quo. Though the desert had been the place Jesus was tempted, these early Christians viewed the desert as the only place to escape temptation. Jerome joined them, determined to become a hermit in the Holy Land. However he only made it as far as Antioch, in Greece, where he became very enamored with Greek and the classic literature of Cicero. During a near-fatal illness, Jerome experienced one of the most famous dreams in church history. Dragged before the throne of God, he was found guilty of preferring classic Greek pagan literature to the Christian gospel. “You are a follower of Cicero, not of Christ,” thundered the judge. Deeply disturbed, Jerome vowed never to read or possess pagan literature again (akin to one who burns all of his secular albums or erases them from his iTunes library―though apparently he snuck in some Cicero a few years later). Jerome departed Antioch for the Syrian desert, only to find the rigors of desert monastic life exhausting. “Though I was protected by the rampart of the lonely desert, I could not endure against the promptings of sin and the ardent heat of my nature,” he later wrote. “I tried to crush them by frequent fasting, but my mind was always in a turmoil of imagination.” The desert didn’t do it for him, so he eventually returned to Antioch where he studied under the Gregories Nanzianzus and Nyssa (letter G). He learned Hebrew, was ordained a priest, and eventually returned to Rome to become secretary to Pope Damasus. At the Pope’s urging, Jerome plunged himself into continued Biblical scholarship and translation. Concerned for the state of Biblical accuracy, the Pope told Jerome, “If we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which, for there are almost as many forms as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering captionerations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake?” Jerome agreed and set to work on the Vulgate. But as any recent seminary graduate can tell you, diving so seriously into Scripture study can sometimes result in an ironic kind of self-righteousness. Jerome became a harsh critic of the clergy around him, sarcastically castigating what he saw as their shortcomings. He managed to offend so many people that when Pope Damasus died, Jerome was run out of Rome. Shaking the dust off his feet on the way out, Jerome called Rome the Babylonian Harlot and set his face anew for the Holy Land. Once there, he set up shop in a monastery a former student built for him in Bethlehem, improved his Hebrew and finished the Vulgate. All told it took him twenty-three years to do it. At first, Jerome worked only from the Greek texts of both New and Old Testaments (the Greek text of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint). But he later decided that for greater accuracy, he would have to translate the Old Testament from the Hebrew. The Vulgate became so widely received and revered that in 1546, the Council of Trent (famous for taking on the Protestant Reformation) declared the Vulgate the only authentic text of the Bible. The Vulgate became so firmly ensconced that Latin remained the language of Roman Catholic worship long after Latin was no longer the language anyone spoke anymore—precisely the opposite of Jerome's original intention. Latin remained the language of the Roman Catholic liturgy up until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The Vulgate’s supremacy meant that no one attempted a translation from Hebrew or Greek again until the Reformation. By now, of course, the Bible has been translated into almost every known language and dialect. Wycliffe Bible Translators reports that only around 2000 dialects, mostly minor, remain. (Wycliffe, by the way, is named for John Wycliffe who was an early advocate for translating the Bible into the vernacular. He himself translated the Bible into the common English of his day from the Vulgate, in 1382.) Currently, Park Street missionaries are at work translating in Central Asia, Thailand, Cameroon and Mozambique. My wife Dawn’s aunt and uncle recently completed their Philippine translation of the Bible in Kagayanen, a project they began on the island of Palawan in 1976. My own first foray into missions was with bible translation in the Philippines back in 1981. I was sent by Intervarsity to illustrate literacy primers that were being prepared and used in the upper reaches of Luzon, the large northern island of the Philippines. The only challenge was getting there. Because the missionary plane was down, my itinerary included a jeepney (a souped-up World War II jeep with as many chickens and goats on board as people), a motorcycle that came within inches of going over a cliff after catching a tree limb in the road, a long solitary hike along a mountainous, robber-infested road until a passerby offered to accompany me, who could have been a robber for all I knew, but turned out to be a Christian sent by God who led me across a river I had to ford carrying all my luggage on my head, only to lose my balance and get swept downstream until rescued by this Christian guide who dove into the river and pulled me ashore. Jerome was right. Translation is fraught with peril. I doubt I could ever pull off that stunt again. As Jerome wrote, “Nearly everything that is excellent about the body changes with age, and while wisdom alone increases, other things decline. Young people endure many struggles with their bodies; just as fire is stifled by green fuel, so also when youth is stifled by the enticements of vice and the titillations of flesh, it cannot display its own brilliance. But certainly those who were taught about honorable pursuits during their youth and who meditate on the law of the Lord day and night become more learned with age, more experienced with practice, wiser with the passage of time, and in old age reap the sweetest fruits from past pursuits.” Jerome died in 419, leaving behind a legacy of scholarship that still inspires all who study and translate Scripture. While we do not possess the original letters of Paul or the gospel of Mark, because of the work of faithful translators like Jerome, we can approximate a text that is as close as humanly possible to what the originals would have looked like. Moreover, the wealth of translation we enjoy as English readers enables us to mine the meaning of Scripture in ways Jerome could have only dreamed. Because the Bible is for us the revelation of God, it is mandatory that we not only be able to read it but to understand it, and not only to understand it, but to put it into practice. In the end, the word of God is not ink on a page, but etched on our hearts and acted out in our lives as the incarnation of Jesus, the body of Christ on earth. “There is a mysterious and hidden wisdom of God,” Jerome wrote. “God planned it before all ages for our glory. And this wisdom of God is Christ; he is the power of God and the wisdom of God. In fact, in the Son are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; he himself hidden in mystery, was destined from of old, before the ages, predestined and prefigured in the law and the prophets… So tell me, to live in the atmosphere of these Scriptures, to think about them constantly, neither to know nor to look for anything beside them, is this not to live the kingdom of heaven already, here on earth? And do not be put off, in the Scriptures, by the simplicity and bluntness of language which may be the translator’s fault or even intentional. They are always set forth in such a way that whoever comes along can find instruction so that, in one and the same sentence, both the learned and the ignorant can find the plain meaning. I am not by any means making so wild and foolish a claim as to flatter myself that I understand everything in the Scriptures. This would be like trying to gather fruit from trees whose roots are fixed in heaven. But I confess that I long to understand and I am pressing on with my endeavor. So here on earth let us study these things, the full understanding of which is laid up for us in heaven.” O God who gave St. Jerome delight in his study of holy scripture; may your people find in your word the food of salvation and the fountain of life. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.


Anonymous said...

I'll say it again...nothing says sommer like the Church Fathers series. I think this is the 9th or 10th year I've been following along...is that possible? Thanks for keeping the tradition going. :-)


John O said...

Agreed. I think the letter J deserves another round next year.

Jaimie said...

My vote's with John's conclusion. What's one more year to add to the series? J is such a great letter. Not that I'm biased or anything.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that in the poll you selected so called mystics...mysticism is NOT chrisitanity even though this form of paganism has inflitrated the pure doctrine of the Gospel since the early era of Christianity. Please do not introduce this kind of wicked deviation from the Gospel that saves...the person and work of Christ alone. If you properly trace the roots of mysticism it has it's roots in the hindu religion.