When translating the start of the Vulgate I came across this verse:
Dixit quoque Deus: Fiat firmamentum in medio aquarum: et dividat aquas ab aquis.
The Latin here is very simple and can be rendered: “And God also said: Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters: and may it divide waters from waters.”
The word firmamentum, famously rendered in the KJV as “firmament,” is translated from the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ (rāqîaʿ). In English it is rendered as “vault” (NIV) or “dome” (NRSV, NAB) in contemporary translations. What is going on here?
When ancient Israel wrote of the “dome” separating the lower waters from the upper waters, it seems they took it quite seriously. And there is some sense to it, especially for a culture that hasn’t flown airplanes above the clouds. Why else would the sky be blue like the waters below? Why else would water come from the sky?
In classical Latin, “firmamentum” referred to a support or prop (often architectural) or the main point of an argument. So it seems to me that Jerome expanded the meaning of the word. Since Greco-Roman cosmology did not involve a dome, he had to adapt a Latin word to fit this Hebrew concept.
Jerome, a contemporary of Augustine, was one of the last Latin-writing Church Fathers to get a classical education. He spent much of his career as an ascetic teacher and biblical scholar emphasizing how he left pagan culture behind. He advised patrons to only have their children read Christian thinkers, even as the literary forms and linguistic styles he wrote in were undeniably of pagan Rome. So (it seems to me) he is uniquely positioned on the cusp of medieval Latin. He wrote as a scholar of the pagan classics, but in translating the bulk of the Vulgate he created the turns of phrase that would infuse the Western medieval church’s liturgy and theology. This use of firmamentum might just be one example of such a turn of phrase.
What do you think? To what extent did Jerome shape the course of medieval Latin in his creative translation effort?
EDIT: For the curious, Scribalishness has a great post explaining the dome and Genesis 1’s cosmology.