Those of you who read the first part of this study would know that, noting certain differences between the Vulgate translation of Genesis 3:15 and other translations, I began to wonder if the Bible had been changed in order to impose a certain meaning upon the text.
The translation from the Hebrew reads:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
This version of the text presents God addressing the serpent, telling him that the offspring of the woman would crush/bruise his head. St Jerome’s Vulgate translation, on the other hand, presents a scenario where the woman herself crushes the serpent’s head.:
I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.
The question, then, arises over who it is that is doing the head-crushing. Is it the woman, or her offspring? To have presented the text in the way that he has, Jerome has performed two operations on the sentence:
- changed the subject of the sentence from ‘seed of the woman’ to ‘woman’
- missed (or ignored?) the gender of the word ‘heel’ (NB: the Hebrew word for ‘heel’ in this text can only be parsed as singular and either masculine or neuter. The feminine form of the word is quite different. )
Were the translation only to require one or other of these changes then Jerome’s handling of the text could be explained away as an accident; however, given that two separate operations were involved in arriving at Jerome’s translation, and that noticing either one in the process of translation would signpost the other, it is more likely that Jerome’s alteration of the meaning of the sentence was quite deliberate. Jerome WAS very well-versed in classical languages, after all. Perhaps Jerome himself can tell us what’s going on, here. In a later analysis of his own work, Jerome says:
more correctly, it has in the Hebrew it will crush your head, and you shall crush its heel. For our footsteps are indeed shackled by the serpent, and the Lord shall crush Satan under our feet swiftly*
This brief comment from Jerome tells us a very great deal; first, it tells us that Jerome recognized the form of the noun “heel”, and of the preceding personal pronoun, to be masculine/neuter singular. Additionally, the comment demonstrates that although Jerome recognized the singular form in the Hebrew, his interpretation of its content corresponding to the word “seed” (i.e. the owner of the heel) to be a collective empowered by Christ. WHOA!! Wait a minute! St. Jerome DID change the text? He conceded his inaccuracy! And it seems he let it stand! What’s going on here? Let’s start with a little bit of context. As far as we know, St. Jerome’s translation of Genesis was the first translation of the book into Latin and the first translation of the book from the Hebrew by a Christian. Also important – the translation was happening in the late fourth century AD. What St. Jerome was doing was ground breaking to the extent that St. Augustine even expressed initial concern about not relying upon the Greek translation that was already available (the Septuagint) – many of the letters between St. Augustine and St. Jerome have been preserved that demonstrate a discussion at great length over the translations, and even over St. Jerome’s method – the use of asterisks and obelisks as codes for flagging discrepancies between the original Hebrew and the Septuagint translation… discrepancies very similar to that which we are investigating here! All of this historical context is going to help us next time when we tackle the idea of canon, and have a look at whether or not St. Jerome was doing something shady by translating the text as he did.
<< Go back to part 1 of this series Watch this space for part 3… >>
_______ * St. Jerome. St Jerome’s Hebrew Questions on Genesis: Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by C.T.R. Hayward, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. Reprinted in 2001. 33.