Thursday, February 28, 2008

Jerome's Hebrew

I posted a comment in the Lieberman post directly below this, and I liked the way I brought out my point, so it's becoming its own post. It concerns Jerome.

Shmuel noted that Jerome "actually did know some Hebrew, having lived in Israel and who was tutored by a local Jew in the Hebrew language and the Tanach." I wanted to broaden that, and acknowledge that Jerome's Hebraic knowledge did exceed the way that sounded, despite the fact that he is cut down as a Hebrew authority by the Jewish Encyclopedia's (1906) thorough entry on him (link, saying that his "knowledge of Hebrew is considerable only when compared with that of the other Church Fathers and of the general Christian public of his time. His knowledge was really very defective. Although he pretends to have complete command of Hebrew and proudly calls himself a "trilinguis" (being conversant with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), he did not, in spite of all his hard work, attain to the proficiency of his simple Jewish teachers."

However, keeping in mind Shmuel's statement that he "knew some Hebrew," I say: He knew more than some Hebrew. He knew Hebrew well, not only having lived in Israel, not only having been tutored in Hebrew (and Jewish interpretations) by JewS, but I know he knew Hebrew well also because he translated the Bible into Latin from Hebrew. Whether or not the Vulgata is the *best* translation ever it is no mean feat to translate the entire Tanakh from Hebrew. (As it happens, it is pretty good, although it naturally also Christological, which makes it Christo-midrashic rather than always literal or peshat oriented.)

Doing only a reasonable job on a translation is impossible without knowing Hebrew well. It is not like today where you can sit down with a stack of translations, Hebrew dictionaries, concordances and references, and so in theory someone who only knows the slightest amount of Hebrew could pretend to make a translation, and perhaps pass it off as something original and even "reasonable." Jerome was working from scratch. He was also an exegete, and he wrote quite a bit about the Hebrew language itself. (Incidentally, he knew Punic, which is cognate with Hebrew. Since he engaged in a little bit of comparative linguistics, I suppose his knowledge of that language helped him. He was no stranger to the tongues of the Shemites, Hebrew included.)

When one considers that the science of Hebrew grammar had barely developed yet, if at all - and that meant that knowledge of Hebrew was achieved through intensive steeping in the texts of that language, nurturing a good intuition and feel for the language - fluency probably would have been achieved in an almost osmosis-like fashion. And how was that done? It would have meant a classic rabbinic education of the time. He therefore did knew Hebrew well.

Jerome achieved what he did in the language (including being able to describe it with sometimes excellent insights) without being, essentially, a צורבא מרבנן.

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