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Fathers of the Church

Letter LXXXI: to Rufinus


Jerome rebukes Rufinus for accusing him (though not by name) of manipulating Origen's texts when translating them.


A friendly letter of remonstrance written by Jerome to Rufinus on receipt of his version of the peri` Archw^n (see the letter at the bottom of this document). Being sent in the first instance to Pammachius this latter treacherously suppressed it and thus put an end to all hope of the reconciliation of the two friends.

by Jerome in 399 | translated by W. H. Fremantle, M.A., G. Lewis, M.A., W. G. Martley, M.A

1. That you have lingered some time at Rome your own language shews. Yet I feel sure that a yearning to see your spiritual parents would have drawn you to your native country, had not grief for your mother deterred you lest a sorrow scarce bearable away might have proved unbearable at home.

As to your complaint that men listen only to the dictates of passion and refuse to acquiesce in your judgement and mine; the Lord is witness to my conscience that since our reconciliation I have harboured no rancour in my breast to injure anyone; on the contrary I have taken the utmost pains to prevent any chance occurrence being set down to ill-will. But what can I do so long as everyone supposes that Ire has a right to do as he does and thinks that in publishing a slander he is requiting not originating a calumny? True friendship ought never to conceal what it thinks.

The short preface to the books peri` Archw^n which has been sent to me I recognize as yours by the style. You know best with what intention it was written; but even a fool can see how it must necessarily be understood. Covertly or rather openly I am the person aimed at. I have often myself reigned a controversy to practise declamation. Thus I might now recall this well-worn artifice and praise you in your own method. But far be it from me to imitate what I blame in you. In fact I have so far restrained my feelings that I make no charge against you, and, although injured, decline for my part to injure a friend. But another time, if you wish to follow any one, pray be satisfied with your own judgement. The objects which we seek are either good or bad. If they are good, they need no help from another; and if they are bad, the fact that many sin together is no excuse. I prefer thus to expostulate with you as a friend rather than to give public vent to my indignation at the wrong I have suffered. I want you to see that when I am reconciled to anyone I become his sincere friend and do not—to borrow a figure from Plautus—while offering him bread with one hand, hold a stone in the other.

2. My brother Paulinian has not yet returned from home and I fancy that you will see him at Aquileia at the house of the reverend pope Chromatius. I am also sending the reverend presbyter Rufinus on business to Milan by way of Rome, and have requested him to communicate to you my feelings and respects. I am sending the same message to the rest of my friends; lest, as the apostle says, ye bite and devour one another, ye be consumed one of another. It only remains for you and your friends to shew your moderation by giving no offence to those who are disinclined to put up with it. For you will hardly find everyone like me. There are few who can be pleased with pretended eulogies.


[Rufinus on his return from Bethlehem to Rome published a Latin version of Origen's treatise peri` Archw^n, On First Principles. To this he prefixed the preface which is here printed among Jerome's letters. Professing to take as his model Jerome's own translations of Origen's commentaries which he greatly praises, he declares that, following his example, he has paraphrased the obscure passages of the treatise and has paraphrased the obscure passages of the treatise and has omitted as due to interpolators such parts as seem heretical. This preface with its insincere praise of Jerome (whose name, however, is not mentioned) and its avowed manipulation of Origen's text caused much perplexity at Rome (see Letters LXXXI, LXXXIII, and LXXXIV), and gave rise to the controversy between Rufinus and Jerome described in the Prolegomena. The date is 398 A.D.]

1. Large numbers of the brethren have, I know, in their zeal for the knowledge of the scriptures begged learned men skilled in Greek literature to make Origen a Roman by bringing home his teaching to Latin ears. One of these scholars, a dear brother and associate, at the request of bishop Damasus translated from Greek into Latin his two homilies on the Song of Songs and prefaced the work with an eloquent and eulogistic introduction such as could not fail to arouse in all an ardent desire to read and to study Origen. To the soul of that just man—so he declared—the words of the Song were applicable: "the king hath brought me into his chambers;" and he went on to speak thus: "while in his other books Origen surpasses all former writers, in dealing with the Song of Songs he surpasses himself." In his preface he pledges himself to give to Roman ears these homilies of Origen and as many of his other works as he can. His style is certainly attractive but I can see that he aims at a more ambitious task than that of a mere translator. Not content with rendering the words of Origen he desires to be himself the teacher. I for my part do but follow up an enterprise which he has sanctioned and commenced, but I lack his vigorous eloquence with which to adorn the sayings of this great man. I am even afraid lest my deficiencies and inadequate command of Latin may detract seriously from the reputation of one whom this writer has deservedly termed second only to the apostles as a teacher of the Church in knowledge and in wisdom.

2. Often turning this over in my mind I held my peace and refused to listen to the brethren when—as frequently happened—they urged me to undertake the work. But your persistence, most faithful brother Macarius, is so great that even want of ability cannot resist it. Thus, to escape the constant importunings to which you subject me, I have given way contrary to my resolution; yet only on these terms that, so far as is possible, I am to be free to follow the rules of translation laid down by my predecessors, and particularly those acted upon by the writer whom I have just mentioned. He has rendered into Latin more than seventy of Origen's homiletical treatises and a few also of his commentaries upon the apostle; and in these wherever the Greek text presents a stumbling block, he has smoothed it down in his version and has so emended the language used that a Latin writer can find no word that is at variance with our faith. In his steps, therefore, I propose to walk, if not displaying the same vigorous eloquence at least observing the same rules. I shall not reproduce passages in Origen's books which disagree with or contradict his own statements elsewhere. The reason of these inconsistencies I have put more fully before you in the defence of Origen's writings composed by Pamphilianus which I have supplemented by a short treatise of my own. I have given what I consider plain proofs that his books have been corrupted in numbers of places by heretics and ill-disposed persons, and particularly those which you now urge me to translate. The books peri` Archw^n, that is of Principles or of Powers, are in fact in other respects extremely obscure and difficult. For they treat of subjects on which the philosophers have spent all their days and yet have been able to discover nothing. In dealing with these themes Origen has done his best to make belief in a Creator and a rational account of things created subservient to religion and not, as with the philosophers, to irreligion. Wherever then in his books I have found a statement concerning the Trinity contrary to those which in other places he has faithfully made on the same subject, I have either omitted the passage as garbled and misleading or have substituted that view of the matter which I find him to have frequently asserted. Again, wherever—in haste to get on with his theme—he is brief or obscure relying on the skill and intelligence of his readers, I, to make the passage clearer, have sought to explain it by adding any plainer statements that I have read on the point in his other books. But I have added nothing of my own. The words used may be found in other parts of his writings: they are his, not mine. I mention this here to take from cavillers all pretext for once more finding fault. But let such perverse and contentious persons look well to what they are themselves doing.

3. Meantime I have taken up this great task—if so be that God will grant your prayers— not to stop the mouths of slanderers (an impossible feat except perhaps to God) but to give to those who desire it the means of making progress in knowledge.

In the sight of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I adjure and require everyone who shall either read or copy these books of mine, by his belief in a kingdom to come, by the mystery of the resurrection from the dead, by the eternal fire which is "prepared for the devil and his angels; as he hopes not to inherit eternally that place where "there is weeping and gnashing of teeth," and where "their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched," let him add nothing to what is written, let him subtract nothing, let him insert nothing, let him alter nothing, but let him compare his transcript with the copies from which it is made, let him correct it to the letter and let him punctuate it aright. Every manuscript that is not properly corrected and punctuated he must reject: for otherwise the difficulties in the text arising from the want of punctuation will make obscure arguments still more obscure to those who read them.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (PNPF II/VI, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.