Chapter III.—He Begins from the Creation of the World—Not Understanding the Hebrew Text.
5. Let me hear and understand how in the beginning Thou didst make the heaven and the earth. 1024 Moses wrote this; he wrote and departed,—passed hence from Thee to Thee. Nor now is he before me; for if he were I would hold him, and ask him, and would adjure him by Thee that he would open unto me these things, and I would lend the ears of my body to the sounds bursting forth from his mouth. And should he speak in the Hebrew tongue, in vain would it beat on my senses, nor would aught touch my mind; but if in Latin, I should know what he said. But whence should I know whether he said what was true? But if I knew this even, should I know it from him? Verily within me, within in the chamber of my thought, p. 165 Truth, neither Hebrew, 1025 nor Greek, nor Latin, nor barbarian, without the organs of voice and tongue, without the sound of syllables, would say, “He speaks the truth,” and I, forthwith assured of it, confidently would say unto that man of Thine, “Thou speakest the truth.” As, then, I cannot inquire of him, I beseech Thee,—Thee, O Truth, full of whom he spake truth,—Thee, my God, I beseech, forgive my sins; and do Thou, who didst give to that Thy servant to speak these things, grant to me also to understand them.
Augustin was not singular amongst the early Fathers in not knowing Hebrew, for of the Greeks only Origen, and of the Latins Jerome, knew anything of it. We find him confessing his ignorance both here and elsewhere (Enarr. in Ps. cxxxvi. 7, and De Doctr. Christ. ii. 22); and though he recommends a knowledge of Hebrew as well as Greek, to correct “the endless diversity of the Latin translators” (De Doctr. Christ. ii. 16); he speaks as strongly as does Grinfield, in his Apology for the Septuagint, in favour of the claims of that version to “biblical and canonical authority” (Eps. xxviii., lxxi., and lxxv.; De Civ. Dei, xviii. 42, 43; De Doctr. Christ. ii. 22). He discountenanced Jeromes new translation, probably from fear of giving offence, and, as we gather from Ep. lxxi. 5, not without cause. From the tumult he there describes as ensuing upon Jeromes version being read, the outcry would appear to have been as great as when, on the change of the old style of reckoning to the new, the ignorant mob clamoured to have back their eleven days!