“Sense for Sense” Translation and the NT use of the OT (Jerome)

The discussion of how the NT authors quoted, cited, or alluded to the OT Scriptures is very big one. There are so many things to think about when contemplating how Paul used Isaiah, for just one of many examples. Which “version” of the Septuagint did he use? Why did he sometimes stick more closely to the Hebrew than the Greek (Septuagint)? And why are some NT citations not exact quotes from the OT? How could the NT authors sometimes conflate two OT texts into one? There are good answers to these difficult questions, to be sure, although we might not be able to answer all these types of questions with certainty.

One possible good answer to some of these questions about the NT use of the OT is found in a letter Jerome wrote to Pammachius in 395 AD. In this letter Jerome defends his “sense for sense” method of translation rather than “a word for word” method. Jerome argues that since the NT authors often cite the OT Scriptures in a “sense for sense” manner, he was only following their lead when he did so. This is a longer letter with more examples, but I thought I’d put a section below for those interested. (Note: I underlined two sentences just to point them out.)

…Let us pass on now to the apostle Paul who writes thus to the Corinthians: “For had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” Some writers on this passage betake themselves to the ravings of the apocryphal books and assert that the quotation comes from the Revelation of Elijah; whereas the truth is that it is found in Isaiah according to the Hebrew text: “Since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee what thou hast prepared for them that wait for thee.” The Septuagint has rendered the words quite differently: “Since the beginning of the world we have not heard, neither have our eyes seen any God beside thee and thy true works, and thou wilt shew mercy to them that wait for thee.” We see then from what place the quotation is taken and yet the apostle has not rendered his original word for word, but, using a paraphrase, he has given the sense in different terms.

In his epistle to the Romans the same apostle quotes these words from Isaiah: “Behold I lay in Sion a stumbling-stone and rock of offence,” a rendering which is at variance with the Greek version [LXX] yet agrees with the original Hebrew. The Septuagint gives an opposite meaning, “that you fall not on a stumblingstone nor on a rock of offence.” The apostle Peter agrees with Paul and the Hebrew, writing: “but to them that do not believe, a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.” From all these passages it is clear that the apostles and evangelists in translating the Old Testament Scriptures have sought to give the meaning rather than the words, and that they have not greatly cared to preserve forms or constructions, so long as they could make clear the subject to the understanding.

Although I believe there is more to the discussion, I think Jerome was on to something. Sometimes when the NT authors cited the OT they weren’t overly concerned with a word-for-word literal rendering of the text like people are today. Instead, they were more interested in getting the sense of the Scripture so they cited it in that manner. That’s not at all a crazy thought. Again, there are other things to think about, but Jerome’s letter is helpful when thinking about how the NT authors cited the OT Scriptures.

The above quote is found in Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace, eds. St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works. Vol. 6. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893. Print. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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