Saint Jerome

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman Christian monk, writer, and translator{$I[g]Roman Empire;Saint Jerome[Jerome])}{$I[g]Israel;Saint Jerome[Jerome])} Because of his scholarship, commentaries on and translation of the Bible into Latin, and role as a propagandist for celibacy and the monastic life, Jerome is numbered with Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, and Gregory the Great as one of the Fathers of the Church.

Early Life

Saint Jerome (jeh-ROHM) grew up in a world in which the influence of Christianity was rapidly expanding. He was born Eusebius Hieronymus. The names of his mother and younger sister are unknown, but his father, Eusebius, was a wealthy landowner, and Jerome had a younger brother, Paulinianus. Jerome’s parents were Christians, although apparently not fervent.

Jerome began his schooling in Stridon, Dalmatia. From Stridon he was sent to Rome for his secondary education. His parents were clearly ambitious for him: Rome was the most prestigious center of learning in the Latin-speaking part of the Empire, and Aelius Donatus, the most famous master of the day, was Jerome’s instructor in grammar. For at least four years, Donatus provided Jerome with a fairly typical Hellenistic education, centering on grammar and the reading and analysis of classical literature. By his adult years, Jerome had an extensive knowledge of the Latin classics. He is generally considered to be the finest of all Christian writers in Latin. In Rome he probably also acquired an elementary knowledge of Greek.

From Donatus’s school, Jerome went to a school of rhetoric, also in Rome. He seems to have studied some law during this period and later could cite the Roman law with great accuracy. One of his fellow students was the Christian Tyrranius Rufinus, who was later to translate many Greek Christian writings into Latin. He and Jerome were the closest of friends, although this friendship would later break down over a theological dispute. Jerome, as a young man, had already begun to acquire many books; in his subsequent journeys he carried his library with him.

Life’s Work

Jerome’s baptism at Rome, sometime before 366, signaled his deepening interest in Christianity. Nothing is known of his life from approximately 357 until 367. In the following five years, Jerome traveled in Gaul, Dalmatia, and northeast Italy, particularly to Aquileia, where Rufinus lived. Although this period is also very obscure, it is clear that Jerome had become interested in contemporary theological controversy. More important, during this period, he felt called to a more serious Christian life. For many of his contemporaries, this call was to an abandonment of the world and a life of asceticism or strict discipline. Monasticism—an institutionalized form of asceticism commonly centered on the abandonment of private property, various forms of self-denial, such as fasting and celibacy, and the attempt to live a life of perpetual prayer—had existed in the eastern part of the Roman Empire for more than a half century but had only recently appeared in the west. Jerome did not adopt this difficult lifestyle suddenly. Like his younger contemporary Augustine, he first renounced further secular ambitions and committed himself to a life of contemplation and study.

Apparently, Jerome’s determination to follow the ascetic life, and his success in persuading his sister to follow suit, led to an estrangement from his parents. In 372, like many pilgrims of his day, Jerome left Rome for the East and Jerusalem. As it turned out, he was not to reach Jerusalem for some years. He remained a year in Antioch, Syria, plagued with illness but used his time there to improve his Greek and familiarize himself with the contemporary state of theological controversy on the nature of the Trinity.

Jerome was tormented by the fact that he still had not made a clean break with the world, and probably in 374 had his famous dream, in which a judge appeared and accused him of being a disciple of Cicero rather than of Christ. That was an expression of Jerome’s inability to give up reading of the classical authors in favor of purely biblical studies. Jerome records that this dream ended with him swearing an oath no longer to possess or read pagan books....

(The entire section is 1754 words.)