Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Saint Jerome, India, and unicorns

TRANSLATION FAIL? How a translation mistake ended up making India a part of the Bible. Whether medieval Christians saw India as a symbol of evil or as the home of saints, the Subcontinent remained a source of fascination (Scroll.in).
Another error in translation brought India into Jerome’s Latin Bible, where it remained at the heart of Catholic belief for over 1,500 years. Jerome, who lived in 347-420 CE, was a monk from modern Croatia who undertook a pioneering translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin, the language of the Roman empire. But Jerome also found time to indulge other interests, including a fascination for India. He seems to have read nearly everything about the Subcontinent that would have been available in Greek and Latin. His letters to friends, colleagues and potential converts are full of references to features of South Asian life in that period – the caste system, Buddhism, and sati. They also mention magical gems and fabulous creatures, like the unicorn, that people in the Mediterranean region believed could be found in India.

With India on his mind, Jerome made a mistake in translating the Hebrew Bible that would influence Christianity for many centuries. In a passage of the Book of Job (chapter 28, verse 16), Jerome translated a Hebrew expression meaning “the gold of Ophir” (a region in East Africa) as “the dyed colours of India”, referring to the brightly-coloured cotton cloth that India was already exporting throughout the world. Indian textiles were a highly valuable commodity in the ancient Mediterranean. Greek and Roman traders travelled to Indian ports like Arikamedu, near present-day Puducherry, to buy cloth, spices and other luxuries, in exchange for gold. It was only natural, therefore, that Roman subjects like Jerome associated India with rich colours and valuable dyestuffs.
Yes, Jerome translated "Ophir" as "India" in Job 28:16. But since we don't know where Ophir was, it's not clear that this was a mistake. In his Anchor Bible commentary on Job, Marvin Pope lists "India, South Arabia, and East and South Africa" as possible locations. (See his comments on 22:24 on p. 168).

Also, while we're on the subject of unicorns, this came up in my searches today: In pictures: Where to find unicorns in Scotland (Linda Howard, Glasgow Evening Times).
You may already be aware of the fact that the unicorn is our national animal, but did you know this mythical creature was believed to be the natural enemy of the lion - a symbol of English royalty?

Unicorns were written about by the ancient Persians, Romans, Greeks and ancient Jewish scholars. They all described a horse-like creature whose single horn had magical properties.
Jerome followed the precedent set in Greek by the Septuagint and he too sometimes translated the Hebrew word for "wild ox" as "unicorn" (e.g., Psalm 21:22 = 22:21 English), but also often as "rhinoceros." The biblical translation as "unicorn" was also picked up in the King James Bible (e.g., again, Psalm 22:21). This ancient mistranslation set off an iconographic tradition that has lasted to the present (hence, Scotland) and a wild goose chase that lasted a long time.

Past PaleoJudaica posts on Saint Jerome and his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible are here and here and links.