Few people today would doubt that Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the greatest writer of the early Christian church. Certainly, he has left us more books than anyone else. For centuries, most of the Western Church took its understanding of Christian doctrine from him, and his influence lingers even today.

From the moment he heeded the voice in the garden to "Take and read," Augustine had a close relationship with the Bible. But he was never a biblical scholar as such. Even in his own time, he was outclassed by his great contemporary Jerome, who made the classic Latin translation of Scripture that we call the Vulgate.

Augustine knew that Jerome was doing this, but he did not altogether approve of his methods. Jerome took the trouble to learn Hebrew, which Augustine thought was unnecessary, since he believed that God had inspired the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. That made the Hebrew original obsolete, in Augustine's eyes, and most of the church at that time agreed with him.

A critical error


Unfortunately, Augustine's Greek was not very good either, and he struggled with the biblical text. Sometimes he even got it wrong, as in Romans 5:12, which he translated to say that the human race sinned in Adam, and not merely because of Adam. Augustine took the verse to mean that every human being was spiritually present in Adam himself, and therefore directly responsible for Adam's sin, whereas the apostle Paul was merely saying that, as a result of Adam's sin, death came into the world and we have all suffered as a result.

The mistranslation had an unfortunate effect on Augustine's doctrine of original sin, making it harsher than it should have been and leading some modern critics to reject it altogether. It just goes to ...

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