In Judith in Vulgate, why does Jerome transliterate the name "Arphaxad" with 'ph', but he transliterates "Holofernes" with an 'f'?

By the time of Jerome, both 'f' and 'ph' were the same sound, the English /f/, right? And Greek letter φ was pronounced /f/ as well at the time, right?

Regardless, they were arguably the same sound given that Jerome was transliterating φ from the same Greek text two times.

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    @JoonasIlmavirta But, by the time of Jerome, they were, right? Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 19:49
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    I don't know the pronunciation history well enough. Maybe that should be looked into in more detail before diving into this question. That would make a good separate prequel question; pronunciation of the Vulgate hasn't been explored much here.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 19:51
  • @JoonasIlmavirta This has been asked already: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/649/…
    – cmw
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 19:53
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    @cmw By myself, as it seems... Anyway, describing the pronunciation of both 'f' and 'ph' in Jerome's time would make at least a strong partial answer to this question. That is not explicitly anywhere on the site, even if it can be inferred from earlier posts.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 20:05

3 Answers 3


Both of these names are older than the Book of Judith, and come from different places.

Arphaxad is a transcription of Hebrew אַרְפַּכְשַׁד (ʔarpakšad), which appears in Genesis: a minor character who's only mentioned in genealogies.

Holofernes, on the other hand, is the Persian name of a Cappadocian ruler mentioned in several historians (as Holophernes, Olophernes, Orophernes); I haven't been able to find the actual articles, but I've found citations for Justi 1895 and de Jong 1999 linking this to Iranian *Varufarnah "having wide glory" (related to Avestan Xvarenah "Glory (deity)")

Jerome, as a rule, stuck very closely to the Greek of the Septuagint when transcribing Hebrew names; that's why we see Joseph for Ἰωσήφ, even though the Hebrew of the time had an /f/ at the end.

But Holofernes wasn't a Hebrew name, and presumably it had been previously transcribed into Latin—the only surviving mentions I could find are written in Greek, but the historical Holofernes lived during the Hellenistic period and made treaties with Roman rulers. So instead of just copying out the Greek and getting something like Olophernes, Jerome went with the Latin transcription he was familiar with.

  • Why wasn't the glotal stop in Hebrew "ʔarpakšad" transliterated as 'h', that is the closest sound both Latin and Greek had? Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 21:02
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    @FlatAssembler Neither Greek nor Latin ever really transcribed Semitic glottal stops. Presumably /ʔa/ sounded more like /∅a/ than /ha/ to them (as it does to most English-speakers).
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 21:39
  • And why wasn't the 'š' sound in Hebrew transliterated as 'si' before an 'a'? Wouldn't it sound closer? Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 21:44
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    @FlatAssembler Hebrew shin is consistently transcribed as sigma in the LXX and S in the Vulgate (hence "Jesus"). The same may be true of Punic, or the Punic sibilants may just have merged before any Latin transcriptions happened.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 23:11

One possible avenue is that Jerome is hearing a difference in the original Hebrew/Aramaic. In Hebrew, Arphaxad is spelled אַרְפַּכְשַׁד. The פַּ has a dagesh, which means that it is pronounced as a bilabial plosive, p. With Judith, Jerome says he is translating from "Chaldean" (i.e. Aramaic), not Greek. So it doesn't matter then what the Greek is doing; if the Aramaic preserved the plosive /p/ for Arpaxad and the fricative /f/ for Holofernes, that's likely what Jerome followed, at least as best as he understood it.

Possibly too he knew the name before his translation from other sources, as Draconis mentioned. The standard way of writing it in Latin would have been to follow the Greek transcription of Olophernes (same name, different person), so it is uncertain from the evidence available why he would have chosen to forego the -ph- and write -f- instead.

Jerome is not entirely consistent in his transliteration, at least not regards with the Masoretic vocalization. In the name Ephraim, Jerome spells it with a -ph- even though the peh lacks the dagesh, yet he spells the name Phineas (which has a dagash) with an F-, Finees. There is no distinction between phi /ph/ and phi /f/ that Jerome would have been hearing, so it is again unknown why he chose to transliterate certain words one way and others another way.

Interestingly, this is not restricted to Hebrew names. In the Prologus, he writes the name Xenofontis, whereas it's unambiguously Xenophontis in Classical sources. I suppose to be thorough one would have to check the apparatus criticus of enough of those references to see if, when, and where there was variation, but at least in the UBS edition, there is no mention of Xenohpontis in the manuscripts.

So, even if Draconis' answer might be technically correct (although we can't be sure), it doesn't explain Finees or Ofni v. Ephraim, especially since in some places the latter is spelled Efraim. Possibly some of it comes from Old Latin, possibly some from the Greek v. historical texts, possibly from learned sermons of the day, but in the end it doesn't look very consistent to me.

Which is funny, of course, since you can also find Holophernes and Holofernes in English papers and books, sometimes interchangeably by the same author.

Short answer is: We just don't know, but it is consistent with Jerome's inconsistency. And at the end of the day, it just might come down to only to inconsistencies.


The answers provided by cmw and Draconis are very learned, but I'm not sure they explain the inconsistent ways of transliterating Phi in the Vulgate. Here is why.

  1. Different editions of the Vulgate transliterate Phi in different ways. For example, the Clementine edition has Arphaxad and Holofernes, which is what FlatAssembler asked about. However, the Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate has Arfaxat and Holofernes.

  2. I am sure that the answers given about Hebrew and Aramaic are correct, but I'm not sure they are pertinant, because Jerome almost always transliterated proper names in the Old Testament from the Septuagint, even when he translated from Hebrew or Aramaic.

  3. My own answer is pure speculation. The medieval manuscripts of the Vulgate were written by scribes who were listening to lectors reading from earlier manuscripts. The scribes wrote what they heard, and they heard what the lectors said, not what Jerome wrote. So the details of Jerome's transliteration of Greek Phi have been lost in history.

I suspect that if we want to understand why F is here and PH is there (and D and T), we will need to study the state of classical and biblical scholarship during the Early Modern Period when the first bibles where being printed. I am far from an expert in those subjects in that period.

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    This isn't actually disagreeing with what I was saying. I mention the Aramaic option since it's relevant, but I really did mean to imply that Jerome is just being inconsistent. I hope I made that clear with my edits.
    – cmw
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 22:39

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