Is Tyrannius Rufinus a Reliable Translator?

A closer look at the reliability of Tyrannius Rufinus’ Latin translation of Gregory Nazianzus’ Greek work On Pentecost.

In a number of scholarly circles, the translations of Rufinus have been under careful scrutiny, and the consensus was that Rufinus’ translations were not reliable. However, this attitude is changing. In my case, the importance of Rufinus lies in his translation of Gregory Nazianzus Greek works, especially the section relating to Pentecost. A controversial text in the Greek, and even moreso in the Latin because of Rufinus’ translation or mistranslation into Latin. So here we go looking for clues to see if he was a reliable translator, so-so, or hit and miss.

Jason Engwer over at triablogue blogspot argues that Rufinus has been vindicated against such negative claims. He quoted Thomas Scheck’s translation of Origen’s Commentary On Romans 1 as proof:

“If Schelkle’s investigation is correct, it seems that Rufinus’s Latin translation has been vindicated, at least in large part. It offers us the best source and most reliable witness for Origen’s thoughts, though Rufinus has expressed these thoughts in his own words. Even Scherer, who thinks that Rufinus has substituted his own exegesis at several points, admits, “The translation is often accurate, exact, and in large measure faithful.”

Engwer asserted his position in an earlier article by quoting two specialists:

John McGuckin refers to Rufinus as “generally a reliable translator” (WHO, 31).

Barbara Bruce, in her introduction to a recent translation of the homilies, comments that the “general reliability” of Rufinus’ Latin translations of Origen have been vindicated, despite the doubts of earlier scholarship and some scholars in our day (HOJ, 11). She continues:

“Other studies have confirmed the paraphrastic nature of his [Rufinus’] work, but have judged the changes to make for clarity and the thought to remain faithful to the Greek. …After explaining how he had expended much labor on changing the hortatory manner of the homilies on Leviticus into the form of an exposition and supplying what was wanting in the homilies on Genesis and Exodus, he said he translated the homilies on Joshua and a few others ‘just as we found them, literally and without great effort.’ Annie Jaubert, in her French translation of the Homilies, supported Rufinus’s statement. She noted constructions that were more dependent on Greek than on Latin syntax and a curtness of speech and density of expression that gave the feel of unpolished notes he may have been working from.”(16-18)2

Mark Humphries adds to the positive chorus when he investigated the reliability of Rufinus’ Latin translation regarding Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, where he concluded:

“Rufinus’s Latin translation of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History is customarily regarded as an inferior creature to the Greek original. By examining Rufinus’s complete translation and continuation together, however, a more sympathetic understanding of his Latin version can be reached. This shows that Rufinus’s version was by no means a clumsy version of the Greek followed by a mediocre continuation, but was conceived of as a unified whole. Hence Rufinus revised Eusebius’s text not only where he found it to be deficient, but also in order to make it fit with a new vision of Christian history that took account of events subsequent to the age of Constantine. Viewed in this light, Rufinus’s version emerges as a more original contribution to ecclesiastical historiography than has been acknowledged hitherto.”3

No author has engaged in this question more than Ronald E. Heine in his book, Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus:

“Rufinus has long been maligned as a translator by critics. Hal Koch makes the statement that Koetschau’s edition of the de Principiis and de Faye’s investigations have shown that Rufinus cannot be trusted in his translation of that work. . . .J.E.L Oulton in comparing Rufinus’ translation of the Church History of Eusebius with the Greek text says, “Rufinus transgressed the bounds of freedom which every translator must be expected to observe.” Heinrich Hoppe says Rufinus sometimes misreads the Greek text because of the haste with which he works and his insufficient mastery of the Greek language, and that he makes additions and alterations in the areas of both theology and rhetoric.

. . .On the other hand, there has been a more positive evaluation of Rufinus’ work paralleling that of his critics. . . .Henry Chadwick . . .“I think it is evident that, so far as general fidelity is concerned, Rufinus emerges well from the scrutiny.” Gustave Bardy regarded Rufinus’ translation of De Principiis as a paraphrase, but one which renders correctly the general sense of the text. . . .Annie Jaubert’s conclusion regarding the reliability of Rufinus’ translation of the homilies on Joshua can be regarded as representing the general conclusion of the various scholars who have studied the different translations of Rufinus and have concluded that they can be trusted within certain limits.

. . .Jaubert’s study of the homilies on Joshua has shown that while Rufinus has remained true to Origen’s thought, his work should not be thought of as a translation, but as a free adaptation.

Henry Chadwick . . .“The voice is the voice of Origen, even though the hands are the hands of Rufinus.”4

Rufinus was well aware that Origen’s texts had begun the process of corruption immediately after they were originally written.5 To combat this, Rufinus had early manuscripts available to him that we do not today, and was able to reconstruct. This was likely how he approached the work of Gregory Nazianzus’ On Pentectost.

With all this information at hand, how should a Rufinus translation of Gregory’s work be treated? I don’t think one should reject Rufinus’ writings as being too opinionated and not true to the original. It is, as noted above, a free adaptation that is committed to the sense, but adds a few hints of later Latin theological and doctrinetic perspectives.

It may be too early to make this conclusion. More comparative analysis need to made between the Greek and Latin texts.

This is looked into greater detail in the following article: Nazianzus tongues of Pentecost Paradox where it is found that he makes a critical translation error from the Greek that started a centuries long debate. ■


  1. (Origen: Commentary On The Epistle To The Romans, Books 1-5 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2001])
  2. The full article along with footnotes can be found at the following article, The Twenty-Seven-Book New Testament Before Athanasius
  3. Rufinus’s Eusebius: Translation, Continuation, and Edition in the Latin Ecclesiastical History
  4. Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus by Origen and Ronald E. Heine. Pg. 30ff
  5. Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus by Origen and Ronald E. Heine. Pg. 34ff

3 thoughts on “Is Tyrannius Rufinus a Reliable Translator?”

    • No, I have not, but looking at the introduction makes it appear well thought out and an important part of the Rufinus reliability discussion. Thanks for forwarding this work.

  1. Thanks for the overview.  I found a rather interesting theological adaptation in his translation of Origen’s homilies on the Psalms, but it appears I never wrote it up on my blog.  Perhaps I’ll get around to that soon, Deo volente.


Leave a Comment