Letter XVIII. To Pope Damasus.
This (written from Constantinople in a.d. 381) is the earliest of Jerome’s expository letters. In it he explains at length the vision recorded in the sixth chapter of Isaiah, and enlarges upon its mystical meaning. “Some of my predecessors,” he writes, “make ‘the Lord sitting upon a throne’ God the Father, and suppose the seraphim to represent the Son and the Holy Spirit. I do not agree with them, for John expressly tells us326 that it was Christ and not the Father whom the prophet saw.” And again, “The word seraphim means either ‘glow’ or ‘beginning of speech,’ and the two seraphim thus stand for the Old and New Testaments.327 ‘Did not our heart burn within us,’ said the disciples, ‘while he opened to us the Scriptures?’328 Moreover, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, and this unquestionably was man’s original language.” Jerome then speaks of the unity of the sacred books. “Whatever,” he asserts, “we read in the Old Testament we find also in the Gospel; and what we read in the Gospel is deduced from the Old Testament.329 There is no discord between them, no disagreement. In both Testaments the Trinity is preached.”
The letter is noticeable for the evidence it affords of the thoroughness of Jerome’s studies. Not only does he cite the several Greek versions of Isaiah in support of his argument, but he also reverts to the Hebrew original. So far as the West was concerned he may be said to have discovered this anew. Even educated men like Augustine had ceased to look beyond the LXX., and were more or less aghast at the boldness with which Jerome rejected its time-honored but inaccurate renderings.330
The letter also shows that independence of judgment which always marked Jerome’s work. At the time when he wrote it he was much under the sway of Origen. But great as was his admiration for the master, he was not afraid to discard his exegesis when, as in the case of the seraphim, he believed it to be erroneous.
326 John xii. 41.
327 Jerome greatly prides himself on this explanation, and frequently reverts to it.
328 Luke xxiv. 32.
329 Cf. Augustine’s dictum: “The New Testament is latent in the Old; the Old Testament is patent in the New.”
330 See Augustine’s letters to Jerome, passim.