Did Greek Theologians Read Latin Theologians in Late Antiquity?

There’s a somewhat deserved stereotype about lingual divisions in the Roman world that goes something like this: Latin readers were eager to learn Greek and/or translate Greek works (e.g., Homer) into Latin; the Greeks, by contrast, did not bother to learn Latin and cared not for what Latin authors had to say. This stereotype largely applies to Christian circles as well as pagan.

How historically accurate is this impression?

For one, it is generally correct that there is much less evidence for Latin-to-Greek transmission, but they were not unheard of. Elizabeth Fisher and Anthony Kaldellis have both catalogued examples from the later empire.[1] In broad, the later eastern empire (from Diocletian up to about Justinian) probably had more Latin competency than earlier periods, for reasons having to do with state centralization and a top-down push to make Latin the definitive language of empire and administration. The famous law school at Beirut, for example, would have acquainted not a few social climbers with Rhomaïstí, as the Greek called it. Indeed, the Greek orator Libanius even complained about zeal for Latinity interfering with mastery of Greek rhetoric.

My own impression is that Greek Christians were slightly more interested in what their Latin co-religionists had to say than the average Hellene was in his average Latin counterpart. Eusebius, for instance, has to tell a comprehensive, universal story of recent Christian history, which necessarily included sources such as Tertullian, Cyprian, or Latin-speaking emperors. Latin Christian authorities were still authorities after all, even if they were rather outnumbered by their Greek brethren.

One particularly interesting case study involves Jerome, who was particularly successful at having his Latin work translated into Greek, of which he even boasts at one point. Now, Jerome was also hostile to John Chrysostom for most of their respective careers, for reasons involving intellectual and ecclesiastical factionalism in the East. Jerome also simply had a penchant for making new enemies. Nonetheless, this did not stop Chrysostom from reading Jerome’s work and even changing his mind afterward.

Keeping the details and footnotes to a minimum (I’m happy to provide citations to the truly interested), if one tracks the history of exegesis about the identity of Jesus’ “brothers and sisters,” one will note that this question became increasingly heated in the later fourth century, since their status (blood-siblings? cousins? step-siblings?) had implications for Mary’s perpetual virginity and (by extension) the biblical support for asceticism. In any case, Jerome had himself invented the “cousins” theory in a polemic exchange. For the eminent James the Just particularly, Jerome posited that he was neither blood- nor step-sibling but rather a cousin through Mary’s sister Mary (yes, two sisters named Mary) and her husband Alphaeus/Cleopas/Clopas. Prior to Jerome, we have no evidence (to my knowledge) of any Christian exegete or historian trying this approach. In fact, Jerome himself appears to have appreciated the novelty of it all, and upon reading more of Eusebius later in life where this theory was blatantly contradicted by older, reputable sources, he gradually eased off this idea in his subsequent writings.

Chrysostom, by contrast, seems to have been more in the step-siblings camp at one point but changed over to Jerome’s theory. The main text of interest is Jerome’s On Illustrious Men. Jerome dedicated this catalogue of Christian clerics, intellectuals, and writers to one Nummius Aemelianus Dexter, who served as comes rei privatae in 387 and then as praefectus praetorio Italiae in 395 (soon after the dedication of Jerome’s book). In other words, the up-and-coming Dexter was well connected to the court of Theodosius I, and he may have been living in Constantinople itself. By way of Dexter and his connections at the capital, it is not difficult to imagine a wide distribution—at least one wide enough to reach another major city like Antioch, particularly when Chrysostom himself, “a presbyter of Antioch,” had come up for brief mention among these illustrious men.

James the Just constituted the second entry of Illustrious Men, and therein Jerome had briefly stated his newfangled theory about James’s relation to Jesus. To me, it is no coincidence that Chrysostom’s commentary on Galatians, usually dated to right around this time, shows knowledge and an endorsement of Jerome’s “cousins” theory. If my conjectures hold, at some point, someone translated Jerome’s Latin into Greek: perhaps one of those bilingual administrators at Constantinople (Dexter?), perhaps Chrysostom himself.

And that’s not all. Another Antiochene of the subsequent generation, Theodoret of Cyrus, also preferred Jerome’s identification of James as a cousin, and he was pretty clearly quoting from Illustrious Men directly. Compare 1) Jerome’s Latin, 2) Theodoret’s Greek, and 3) the later, better known, Byzantine translation of Illustrious Men:

Iacobus qui appellatur frater domini, cognomento Iustus, ut nonnulli existimant, Ioseph ex alia uxore, ut autem mihi uidetur Mariae, sororis matris domini, cuius Iohannes in libro suo meminit, filius. . . .

Ἀδελφὸς τοῦ Κυρίου ἐκαλεῖτο μὲν, οὐκ ἦν δὲ φύσει. Οὔτε μὴν, ὥς τινες ὑπειλήφασι, τοῦ Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς ἐτύγχανεν ὢν, ἐκ προτέρων γάμων γενόμενος, ἀλλὰ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ μὲν ἦν υἱὸς, τοῦ δὲ Κυρίου ἀνεψιός· μητέρα γὰρ εἶχε τὴν ἀδελφὴν τῆς τοῦ Κυρίου μητέρος.

᾿Ιάκωβος ὁ ἀδελφός τοῦ κυρίου, ἀπόστολος καὶ ἐπίκλην Δίκαιος ὥς τινες ὑπολαμβάνουσι τοῦ Ἰωσήφ ἀπό ἄλλης γυναικός, ὡς δὲ ἐμοί φαίνεται Μαρίας ἀδελφῆς τῆς μητρός τοῦ κυρίου, ἦς Ἰωάννης μέμνηται παρὰ τὸ πάθος τοῦ κυρίου. . . .

The two Greek passages are obviously close, but they clearly also involve different translators of the same material. I suspect this means that by, the 440s at the latest, there was already a Greek translation of Illustrious Men out there, at least in Antioch. Further, because of their shared connections to Antioch, I think it likely Chrysostom himself had access to the same Greek translation.

In any event, the answer is “yes”: Greek fathers did indeed care enough to translate and read their Latin counterparts—even if this was not an especially common occurrence. To illustrate by way of contrast, Augustine was arguably much more influential than Jerome in the Latin context over the long term, and the former’s admiring biographer-colleague Possidius refers vaguely to some books translated into Greek. Yet we have no trace of these Augustinian translations, unlike the scholarship of Jerome and Rufinus, who (also unlike Augustine) themselves knew Greek well and spent considerable time in the East.

  1. Elizabeth Fisher, “Greek Translation of Latin Literature in the Fourth Century A.D.,” in Later Greek Literature, ed. John J. Winkler and Gordon Williams, vol. 27, Yale Classical Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 173–216. See Anthony Kaldellis’s running tally of such translations into Greek: Catalogue of Translations into Byzantine Greek (version III), https://www.academia.edu/36711128/Kaldellis_Catalogue_of_Translations_into_Byzantine_Greek_version_III_


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