Thursday, June 17, 2010

Jerome and "our Judaizers"

I just finished reading Michael Graves's brief but very interesting article, "'Judaizing' Christian Interpretations of the Prophets As Seen by Saint Jerome," Vigiliae Christianae 61 (2007): 142–56. Graves asks what, specifically, Jerome objects to as "Judaizing" given his own striking (for the early fifth century CE) views vis-à-vis Hebrew texts (vs. the LXX), rabbinic exegetical traditions, and spiritual vs. literal interpretations.

Citing Vaccari,1 Graves identifies two aspects of Jerome's interpretive practice. First, Jerome draws upon three rather distinct perspectives in his hermeneutical discussions, (i) the historical or literal interpretive tradition associated with Antioch, (ii) the Jewish interpretive tradition, "as mediated primarily through personal Jewish teachers" (144), and (iii) the Christian mystical interpretive tradition associated with Alexandria. Second, Jerome's interest in Hebraic interpretations was closely associated with his appreciation for the texts' literal or historical interpretation.

Graves then provides examples of Jerome's interpretative practice, especially of Hebrew prophetic texts, that illustrate how these two factors relate as part of that practice. Here's the first of those examples:
A brief and clear-cut example of the spiritual and literal meanings given side by side may be found in Jerome's Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11–12, where Jerome says this about the ventus urens, the "scorching wind" which, as Jerome reads the verse, is coming in judgment: "iuxta historiam, understand the 'scorching wind' as Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed everything, but iuxta tropologiam understand the 'scorching wind' as the Adversarial Power, who, coming from the desert and the wasteland, where there is no shelter of God, tries to destroy His church." Here, Jerome gives both the "historical" and the "tropological" meanings one right after the other. As is evident, Jerome accepts both meanings as valid. (Graves, "Saint Jerome," 146–47)

Given Jerome's willingness to accept a "historical," "Hebraic" interpretation of prophetic texts (which focus on Israel and her history), how should we understand Jerome's polemical references to "Judaizing" interpretations (which, presumably, Jerome himself may have been accused of propagating)? According to Graves, Jerome accepted Hebraic interpretations only insofar as they referred to past events. Two things distinguished Jerome's interpretations from those he found unacceptable. First, Jerome insisted that every passage held some spiritual significance and was fulfilled spiritually, whether in reference to (one of the two advents of) Christ or to the church. Second, "literal" or "historical" interpretations applied to the past and not to the future.
Thus, it is not the literal meaning per se that Jerome regards as "Judaizing"; Jerome is comfortable with "literal" interpretations, provided that they assign the fulfillment of prophecy either to Israel's past history or directly to Christ. It is certainly not the futuristic aspect of the interpretations to which Jerome objects, since all prophetic texts have some contemporary or future application to Christ and the church. The problem, from Jerome's perspective, is that the "Judaizers" look for future, literal fulfillments that are not directly Christological. The particular combination of these two elements, literal and futuristic, is what Jerome does not accept. (Graves, "Saint Jerome," 151)

I'm certainly no scholar when it comes to Jerome and/or fourth- and fifth-century Christian history, but Graves's discussion is both clear and (as far as I am able to tell) insightful. How fascinating to watch elements within the Church, four centuries after Jesus, engaging "the continuing struggle . . . to determine how they relate to the promises made to 'Israel' in the Old Testament, and how the interpretation of prophetic literature intersects with Christian theology and Christian identity" (Graves, "Saint Jerome," 156).

1 A. Vaccari, "I fattori della esegesi geronimiana," Bib 1 (1920): 457–80.

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