Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Jerome’s Bibliology and the Greek Additions to Esther

Jerome of Stridon translated the Hebrew text into Latin in the late fourth and early fifth century. The book of Esther is in Jerome’s canon, as it was in most early Christians’, but there was the additional question about its text form, since the Greek version is some fifty-per-cent longer than the Hebrew. When he comes to the book of Esther, he composed a preface to the book and prefaces before each of the Greek additions, all basically indicating what was translated from the Hebrew and what came from the common edition, i.e. the Latin translation of the Seventy. He moved these additions to the end of the book, and in the preface to Addition F, he says he put the obelus, that is a spear, beside them.

Two Examples from Jerome’s Letters

Evidently, the matter is more complicated in Jerome’s actual practice. In Ep. 49(48).14, writing a defense to Pammachius (ca. 393–394), who perceived Jerome in his books against Jovinian to be elevating chastity above marriage, Jerome launched into a discussion of what is “good.” From Exod 3:14 (“I am who I am”), he settles on this principle, “If you compare every created thing (assumed to be good) with God, it has no existence.” In support of the converse, he then cites Esther Add C22: as Esther says, ne tradas hereditatem tuam his, qui non sunt, uel idolis scilicet uel daemonibus. If God, “who is who he is,” is good, then “those who are not” are evil idols and demons. They exist, but because they are lost (periit) to God, they are said not to be.

Be that as it may, for our purpose, Jerome appeals to Esther Add C22 to establish a theological point about what is good and what is not good in categories of “who is” and “those who are not.” In fact, he uses Add C22 to establish the opposite point of Exod 3:14. Perhaps, one could argue that he’s only using Add C22 illustratively and not as authoritative scripture. But that appears to be a stretch here.

In Ep. 130.4 (ca. 414 AD), he says, “Demetrias cried like Esther to the Lord (Esth Add C27), ‘You know that I hate the sign of my high estate’—that is to say, the crown which she wore as queen—’and that I hate it as a filthy rag’.” Here, Jerome compares the virtue of Demetrias, a chaste woman, with the virtue of Esther, and once again, Jerome uses a passage from the Greek additions to Esther not found in the Hebrew. One could suggest here that Jerome uses Add C27 for a simple example of piety and not for doctrine. That is, in this case, Jerome is appealing to the edificatory nature of this passage, not any perceived authority.


Jerome’s bibliology includes canonical, apocryphal, and useful-edificatory books (cf. Prologue to Solomonic Books and elsewhere). The latter category consists of books neither canonical nor apocryphal; that is, books neither authoritative for doctrine nor the dangerous works of heretics. Does Jerome’s use of the additions to Esther fit this category in a similar way to how he treats Judith and Tobit? It seems his appeal to C27 does, but his use of C22 does not so easily fit.

More work needs to be done here, but we should pause before immediately claiming Jerome was pro Hebraica Veritas only or exclusively. His views are more complicated than appear at first blush.


  1. Stridon was in Dalmatia, where Titus went according to 2 Time 4.10.

  2. Isn't this a pretty common phenomenon? For example, 1 Clement is replete with biblical citations, yet also refers to non-canonical material. In fact, I'm inclined to say the same phenomenon occurs today when preachers who (rightly) hold to a high view of Scripture yet quote some figure outside the Bible. (Just thinking out loud here: Might the frequency of such citations correlate with the degree to which one sees common grace at work in the world? Some of the church fathers saw common grace in the Greek philosophers.)

    1. Stephen, you might be right. To my mind, what makes this instance different from 1 Clement is that we can compare Jerome's own thoughts on the matter (his Esther prefaces and other statements) with a couple instances where he appears to be inconsistent. We don't have much content like that in 1 Clement.

      Does this make sense?

  3. May be, it is no coincidence that where Hieronymus is referring to Esther 14,11, the text of the offertorium of the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost is derived from Esther 14,12-13?
    The Roman Catholic Church uses deuterocanonical parts in the liturgy. "Merito itaque Concilium Tridentium (sess. 4) totum librum Esther cum suis partibus canonicum declaravit", H. Zschokke, Historia Sacra Antiqui Testamenti, 6th ed., 1910, p. 319. Zschokke also mentioned Hieronymus' two letters, quoted in the blog.

    1. Teunis, I’m not sure about any connection with the liturgical calendar. But usage of Add C22 goes back at least as far as Origen and many fathers cite this text. No doubt, Jerome felt the inertia, but that’s what makes this so interesting to me.

    2. Usually texts used in liturgy are considered authoritative scripture. I do not know when the offertorium-text of the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost in the Roman liturgy is introduced.
      Sometimes liturgical use determined the canonicity of texts, especially in the early church.

    3. Right. But the chronology here is slippery. Thanks for the reference in any case, Teunis.

    4. Yes, The chronology is slippery here, John.
      Nevertheless, I want to refer to another allusion to Esther 14,12-13 in the Roman liturgy.
      Already in the 6th century is was customary to read from the book Esther in the nocturns of the Office of the last week of September. The several times repeated respons to the lessons, like a refrain, was: Conforta me, Rex, Sanctorum principatum tenens: * Et da sermonem rectum et bene sonantem in os meum. This respons is also used to lessons from Judith, read in the week earlier.
      The text of this respons is based on the Vetus Latina translation of the Greek text of Esther 14, 12b-13a. Despite Hieronymus'translation and obelisation this responsorium-text survived in the Tridentine Breviary.

    5. … based on *a* Vetus Latina translation

    6. Teunis, thanks for this reference as well. Very interesting.