Saturday, March 2, 2013

What is man among the council of the Gods? A brief look at Psalm 8 in Jerome's Hebrew Psalter.

Quid est homo quoniam recordaris eius?
Vel filius hominis quoniam visitas eum?
Minues eum paulo minus a Deo
gloria et decore conronabis eum.
--- Psalmus 8:5-6 (Jerome's Hebrew Psalter)

If one prays the Latin Psalter regularly, more than likely one has rarely prayed "minues eum paulo minus a Deo,", unless one has preferred praying from the handful of critical editions of Jerome's "Hebrew Psalter". Completed circa 392-405, Jerome's translation from the Hebrew utilized (we think) a pre-Masoretic text that was fairly close to the standard Hebrew text we have today (assuming reverse translation is reliable). It was completed anywhere from 12 to 18 years after he had worked on translating (to greater and lesser degrees) the Greek New Testament and bits from the Septuagint and some two decades after he had learned Hebrew. Jerome's "Hebrew Psalter" reflects his maturity as a translator and his acquisition of the language, which makes the text a fascinating linguistic study in of itself. You can, if you're up for the task, trace the development of Jerome's Hebrew proficiency by following the progression of his earliest commentaries on the Hebrew text (dating prior to his migration to Bethlehem) to his completed translation of Psalter. There are those who would disagree with me in the following assessment, but I would contend that Jerome's "Hebrew Psalter" is one of his most mature works as a translator, representative of a man who was, as we say, hitting his stride as a linguist.

I've always enjoyed Jerome's "Hebrew Psalter", partially because of familiarity with Hebrew, though largely because it offers a different experience of the Latin tradition. It reflects the "concrete" force of the Hebrew whereas, it seems to me, the so-called Gallican Psalter replicates the more....ethereal qualities of the Septuagint, not too mention the occasional bout of incomprehensible grammar. There's a certain force to the "Hebrew Psalter" that one finds in the Hebrew text as well as contemporary translations but is often, to my sense of things, missing in the "traditional" Latin psalter.

Jerome's "Hebrew Psalter" also provides us with a bit of a puzzle to solve. Jerome was never much of  systematician. He was an exegete. So far as his own theology is concerned, I prefer to think that he let his translations do the talking. His concept of Hebraica veritatis was not simply a matter of identifying the proper text for translation; the Hebraica veritatis conveyed the proper knowledge of God. Thus, how Jerome renders the Hebrew text often reveals more about his personal theology than any of his writings (which were oftentimes produced amid controversy).

This in mind, I have to wonder what, if anything, Jerome was trying to communicate with "minues eum paulo minus a Deo." Jerome's translation prefers a singular as opposed to plural reading of מאלהים, seemingly letting his translation be dictated by the traditional understanding of אלהים in the first chapter of Genesis. At this point, it is truly regrettable that his Tractus septem in psalmos is no longer extant, it might indicate if Jerome entertained a christological interpretation of Psalm 8 after he had progressed in his knowledge of Hebrew. My suspicion is that this translation indicates that Jerome had begun  favoring the literary world of the Hebrew text over conventional Christian interpretation. This still leaves us wondering how he intends  a Deo to translate מאלהים.  The term lends itself to some ambiguity, אלהים being used for beings other than Yahweh in the Hebrew text. Jerome avoids a plural rendering in Latin, however, one may debate whether or not Deo is intended to be read as "God" or "a God." The greater context of Psalm 8 would make "God" grammatically awkward - essentially, "God, you made man less than God." Not impossible, but it would be odd. If the intention is "a god," then Jerome finds a way of maintaining the allusion to the divine council found in the original text and does a better job at literally translating the Hebrew. The divine council in turn leads us back to the ancient Semitic combat myth, in Yahweh holds in place a spectrum of ancient divine beings who would potentially unleash chaos upon creation. I personally opt for this interpretation of the Latin as it retains the allusions of the Hebrew and thus takes us back into the ancient Semitic world of the text, where Yahweh engages in both council and conflict with a myriad of semi-divine and divine beings. We are thus plunged back into the mythic world of ancient Judaism, where Yahweh holds a myriad of beings in their place, sustaining creation from the ancient well springs of chaos. Jerome, for his part, found a concise way to render this content into Latin and thereby to the Christian tradition.