Knowing Scripture, knowing Christ

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes…

Each year the church commemorates St Jerome on 30 September (the day he died in 420). Jerome is one of the most prolific and provocative writers of the early church. He is best known for the ‘Vulgate’, his translation of the Bible into Latin, the vernacular of the fifth century. The Vulgate was used throughout western Christendom for over a thousand years until the Reformation(s) of the sixteenth-century when Latin had been superseded by new vernaculars. Others like Martin Luther and William Tyndale attempted to do for German and English, respectively, what Jerome had done for Latin, namely to translate Holy Scripture from its original languages of Hebrew, Greek and a smattering of Aramaic.

Jerome’s devotion to the task of the Vulgate was herculean. Though proficient in Latin and Greek, he was well into middle age before he began to study Hebrew in Palestine. His familiarity with the poor translations of his time underscored the need for a new translation by someone steeped in the original tongues. Using the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than the Septuagint (the third-century BC translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek), put Jerome at enmity with many of his contemporaries, including St Augustine of Hippo, a frequent interlocutor, who like many of their day believed the Septuagint was itself inspired. Moreover, Jerome’s close study of the ancient texts led him to note presciently the dubious pedigree of the Apocrypha now enshrined in the Articles of Religion (Article VI) and the inaccuracies of variations of biblical texts that called for careful comparison and editing. Jerome worked diligently on his Vulgate. It took him over twenty years to render the sacred words, all the while living an ascetic and exemplary life in humble circumstances near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Translating and editing, though, were hardly enough. Once Jerome had completed the Vulgate, he was keen to plumb the depths of God’s word in arduous study and to write detailed commentaries on the books of the Bible. He spent the rest of his life doing just that. His purpose, of course, was not only to share his learning and understanding with his sisters and brothers, but also to come to a more intimate knowledge of the Word of God, of the Trinity as revealed in the whole of the Bible. In the prologue to his commentary on Isaiah 18, Jerome alludes to the importance of the Old Testament in knowing Christ. He links four New Testament verses together (Matthew 7.7; 22.29; John 5.39; and I Corinthians 1.24) to the effect that all of Scripture bears witness to Christ, that to know the Scriptures is to know Christ. Jerome, therefore, concludes: ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’.

This is an invaluable insight for you and me. A cacophony of booming voices vies for our attention in the twenty-first century. It is overwhelming. Our profusion of media proffers an unending stream of information that we cannot possibly process, yet it brings scant wisdom. Internet searches are aptly called ‘hits’, for they are more barrages than shelters for seekers. Technologically sophisticated as our tools may be, we are no wiser than our forebears: the violence, inequities and injustices of our societies prove that beyond doubt, even as our hearts yearn for wisdom. We are not unlike the figure of Job who asks, ‘But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?’ (Job 28.12). Jerome reminds us of the answer: in Christ, in the Bible. The deepest wisdom and understanding about ourselves and all that surrounds us is not to be found in our own reasoning and reflection. Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6). The ultimate questions of humanity are answered in Christ, and the Scriptures bear testimony to him (John 5.39). 

As we recall Jerome’s monumental achievement in the Vulgate, we ought not to lose sight of his solemn realisation: that as he immersed himself in Scripture, he immersed himself in Christ. Let us turn again and again to the Bible as Jerome did. There is a direct relationship between our biblical illiteracy and our failure to follow Christ because there is a direct relationship between biblical literacy and knowing Christ: who he is and what he asks of each and every Christian. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3.16). We would do well, indeed well unto our sanctification and salvation, to take a fair share of time each and every day to intentionally ignore the cacophony of booming voices that vies for our attention and to open the Good Book. Jerome is spot on: If we know Scripture, we know Christ.

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute (Edinburgh), the training agency for authorised ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Dr Hull also tutors in biblical studies and Christian doctrine at SEI, acts as the Editor of the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal. He earned his doctorate in biblical theology at the Gregorian University (Rome) and has published in the field.

A native New Yorker and now adopted Scot, Dr Hull came to SEI and moved to Edinburgh in 2015, after sixteen years as a professor of Sacred Scripture at St Joseph’s Seminary (Yonkers, NY), whilst serving in a variety of ecclesiastical and pastoral roles in New York.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.