Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jerome on Tobit and Judith among the Hagiographa: A Wrong Avenue

More than a year ago I mentioned that I was working on a paper dealing with Jerome's translations of Tobit and Judith (see also here). I'm glad to be able to say that that paper will be published by Harvard Theological Review probably sometime in 2014.

But I still haven't quite come to terms with a particularly odd feature of Jerome's prefaces to Tobit and Judith (mentioned before here). Why does Jerome say in his prefaces to Tobit and Judith that the Jews read these books as part of the Hagiographa? Elsewhere he uses this same term (Hagiographa) for the third section of the Jewish canon, the Ketuvim, and he knows that the Ketuvim does not include Tobit and Judith. The term Hagiographa appears in all his works only seven times, and five of these are in reference to the Ketuvim. Why then does he use this same rare term in his prefaces to Tobit and Judith in a way that contradicts his other uses of the term?

It occurred to me sometime ago that maybe Jerome, in his prefaces to Tobit and Judith, was thinking about the Hagiographa in terms of what is now called Hagiography, or lives of the saints. Since this is a known use of the term, and quite common nowadays, it could provide a plausible definition for Jerome's term 'Hagiographa' in reference to Tobit and Judith and their position in Jewish reading culture. Perhaps Jerome is saying that the Jews still do read Tobit and Judith as edifying literature, as accounts of the heroes of the faith from long ago.

Unfortunately, the history of the term precludes this explanation. According to the OED, the first attestation in English for the term Hagiography is in 1821. The OED does not trace the prior history of the word before its occurrence in English (except for giving the etymology), not a good sign for my hypothesis. And after sorting through all the uses of the Latin term in patristic and medieval sources (there are not very many), I can't find anything that would lend credence to this definition of the term as early as Jerome. Indeed, Jerome is the first one to use the term in Latin, and the later authors rely on Jerome for their own definitions.

It seemed like a promising idea, but it lacks supporting evidence. I'll continue to ponder why Jerome chose this particular word for his prefaces to Tobit and Judith.

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