Saint Jerome's Hebrew Questions on Genesis

By Saint Jerome; C. T. R. Hayward | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION

The closing decades of the fourth century were I a time of growing disappointment and sadness for Jews who were now subjects of the Christian Empire of Rome. As early as the reign of Constantine I, an imperial law of 315 had decreed that Jews should not proselytize. The Emperor Constantius had enacted (in 338) that Jews who had married Christian women working in the imperial weaving factories should divorce their wives; he also threatened with death Jewish men who sought Christian wives. The same emperor had forbidden Jews to own a Christian slave. Laws like these marked the beginnings of anti-Jewish legislation which gathered momentum with the passing years: by the year 439, the Emperor Theodosius II was preventing Jews from undertaking public office, unless it required the expenditure of large sums of money which the Roman authorities would not reimburse. Jews could have had few doubts about the bleakness of their prospects; and no clearer sign of things to come could have been given than the emperor's reversal, at Ambrose's prompting, of his decision that Christians should pay for damage they had inflicted on a Jewish synagogue at Callinicum.1 This last incident took place in the year 388.

By that year, Jerome was settled in the Land of Israel, immersing himself in Hebrew studies, consorting with Jewish teachers, acquiring Jewish texts, and learning all he could about the Hebrew language and Jewish exegesis of Scripture. That itself was extraordinary, given the climate of the times; even more remarkable was his composition of an entire work devoted to things Jewish. For Hebrew Questions on Genesis (hereafter QHG) represents the most ordered and sustained attempt by any Christian writer, up to Jerome's time, to transmit to the Church Jewish scholarship in its own terms. QHG is thus an unusual work. At first blush, it would seem appropriate to relate it in some way to Jerome's greatest enterprise, his translation of the Old Testament into Latin direct from the Hebrew. It was with that end in view that he had first

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1
See Ambrose, Epistles40 and 41.

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