Book Review: Jerome, Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets, Volume 1

Scheck, Thomas, ed. Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets: Volume 1, Ancient Christian Texts by Jerome. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. Link to IVP

This new contribution to the Ancient Christian Texts series is the first of three volumes collecting Jerome’s commentaries on the twelve Minor Prophets. Jerome (c. 347-419/20) is primarily known for his Latin translation of the Bible (The Vulgate), but he was also a prolific commentator on biblical books. He was thoroughly familiar with Jewish traditions and brought them to bear on his understanding of the Old Testament. Beginning in 379, Jerome used his considerable linguistic skills to translate Origen’s commentaries and, eventually, to translate and comment on Scripture himself.

Image result for Scheck, Thomas, ed. Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets: Volume 1,According to the introduction, in 392 Jerome wrote his commentary on Nahum, the first of his commentaries on the twelve Minor Prophets. In the next year he finished commentaries Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai and Habakkuk, Jonah and Obadiah were completed in 396 following the Originist Controversy. In the mid-390s a petition circulated to have Origen declared a heretic. Although he translated Origen’s work and was an advocate of his work, Jerome signed this petition and became an outspoken opponent of Origen. Scheck says this can be seen by “occasional outbursts” against origin in the commentaries beginning with Jonah. Nevertheless, Jerome possessed Origen’s twenty-five book commentary on the Minor Prophets “which I hug and guard with such joy, that I deem myself to have the wealth of Croesus” (xxii).

The commentaries are presented in the order Jerome wrote them and a table in the introduction identifies the year he completed each commentary (xvi) and a second table includes order of the commentaries along with Jerome’s other commentaries and his translations of Origen. In preparing these commentaries, Jerome used the text of the Hebrew Bible as his main source, but also the LXX and Origin’s commentaries on the Minor Prophets. The translations were originally made by classics students from Ave Maria University under the direction of Thomas Scheck. The original translators are identified at the head of each commentary. Scheck carefully edited these translations into the final form found in this volume.

A key feature of Jerome’s commentaries is his frequent allusion to both the Old and New Testament. These are identified in the notes and virtually every pages of this volume has at least several allusions to biblical texts. As Scheck suggests, Jerome understood as a unity and thought the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture itself (xxiv). Following Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Bible he usually gives the Septuagint, commenting on any differences. For example, commenting on Zephaniah 2:3-4, Jerome translates the Hebrew “Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth, you who have worked his judgment, seek the just seek the meek,” and the LXX as “seek the Lord, all the humble of the earth, work judgment and seek justice.” The LXX reading is interpreted as a reference to “no one else by Christ” because everyone who seeks him will find him, citing Matthew 7:8. This is typical of the commentaries, they are thoroughly Christocentric.

An important feature of this volume is the indices. The first collects references in the text (and footnotes) to historical allusions (the Ebionites, Origen, etc.) or to other translations (Symmachus and Theodotion, for example).  There are about ten pages ion the Scripture including allusions to Sirach.

Aside from historical interests, what is the value of reading a 1600 year old commentary on the Minor Prophets? There are a number of allegorical interpretations which attempt to focus a text on Christ or the church which seem to go well beyond the results of a grammatical historical method. For example, commenting on Haggai 2:19-20, Jerome take the pomegranate as a reference to the church. In order to make this point, he alludes to the Song of Solomon 8:1, the bride’s cheeks are compared to a pomegranate and the bride in the Song is allegorical interpreted as the Church. The olive tree in Haggai 2:20 refers to the illumination of Scripture, presumably because olive oil was used in lamps. Modern interpreters would be content to (correctly) read Haggai 2:19-20 as a reference to prosperity returning to the land (when pomegranates and olive trees will flourish again).

This may be an extreme example, but Jerome’s method of reading a given text alongside other texts is a kind of Christological intertextuality which flattens the canon and often creates observations which would be ignored by the traditional grammatical historical method. Perhaps there is good reason to draw two or three texts together as Jerome does, but sometimes the interpretations are strained beyond what my modern mind can bear.

Nevertheless, IVP Academic is to be applauded for once again providing these commentaries to English readers. Like other volumes in the series, the book itself is well-designed and reader friendly.

 

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Jerome, Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets, Volume 1

  1. I haven’t studied the Christian history of the 4th to early 5th century in much depth, but it sure seems a pivotal time for the direction Christianity would take, at least until the Enlightenment and, in many ways, to the present. It’s very hard to reverse centuries of tradition and scholarly works. It would certainly seem Eusebius, Jerome and then Augustine, all within roughly a century, were pivotal thinkers in a pivotal period… One in which “orthodoxy” became orthodox. Now, Christians, both laity and many scholars, tend to read Christian history and biblical interpretation through the lenses provided, in large part, by figures in the 4th to early 5th century.

    And it’s certainly significant that this is also when the Empire became, first unofficially and then officially, “Christian”. Given the time, I’d enjoy studying Jerome further. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect he was largely in the general way of thinking and influenced heavily by Eusebius. There is hardly a “better” spinmeister than Eusebius.

    One specific I’d be interested to hear about, if you know much, would be how Jerome looked at the work of “Luke”, particularly in Acts. Does he, for example, merely buy everything Luke says as historical and/or as “inspired” and authoritative, with no real “fact checking” needed? Did he recognize some of the many things post-Reformation scholars have about the conflicts between Paul’s theology and mission and that of the Jerusalem Apostles, for example? Things which Acts largely “papers over” to leave an impression that all got settled, with everyone “on the same page”, when this is pretty far from what seems to be the reality…. Rather, Acts is the beginning of major spin which Eusebius took to another level. I’m wondering where Jerome was in all this?

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    • Thanks again for the feedback. Like you, I am no expert in Jerome, but I did find a list of his commentaries and saw he only wrote on selected passages in Luke, and nothing on Acts. He did produce “thirty-nine on the Gospel of Luke (ca. 389, in Bethlehem)” according to wikipedia (sorry for using it, but it is an accurate list). My guess is he was attracted to the OT since it could be read allegorically as all about Jesus and the Church. As far as I know Jerome was interested in translation and commentaries, less on creating a church history. He wrote 50+ years after Eusebius, perhaps he simply accepted that as the official history and did not worry about that sort of thing.

      I did notice in this review he cited Sirach often, and there are a few allusions to Tobit as well. I did not check every reference, but the ones I did seemed more or less like other scriptural allusions. This is not a surprise since the deuterocanonical books were often accepted as authoritative in some of the church fathers.

      I think he would approach any book of the Old or New Testaments as “as ‘inspired’ and authoritative, with no real “fact checking” needed?” But that would be more or less like some Greek reader of Thucydides, etc.

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      • Thanks for the further info. It’s so hard for us to very thoroughly get into the mindsets and situations of either “ordinary” believers or scholars of that era. It’s relatively easier to trace the development of dogma, as that is much of what is recorded, along with commentary. But with the long gap between the canonical NT books, only one of which even seeks to be historical, and Eusebius gives us very little of real events and what was motivating them. In our “modern” era, those two full centuries would be a massive chunk to have largely “missing”. I suspect it was similar then, in many regards, minus the technological development speed.

        When we have power-and-dogma driven churchmen (no women and mainly Eusebius) filling in the “historical” gaps we have a very dicey situation. And most of us (even scholars with basically “orthodox” faith, I sense) forget just how socially-driven and theologically allegorical and speculative was most of biblical interpretation…. That which gradually became proto-orthodox and then orthodox theology in a world of MANY approaches to Christian faith and many related and competing systems. And the over-simplification of this history contributes to grave biblical misunderstandings in my not-so-humble opinion.

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