St. Jerome Essay - Critical Essays

St. Jerome


St. Jerome 346/47-419/20

(Full name Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus.) Roman translator, historian, exegete, and letter writer.

Named a Doctor of the Church primarily for his Latin translation of the Bible, St. Jerome is also noted for his scriptural interpretations, church histories, and satiric commentaries on the moral culture of his day. Jerome's scholarly monasticism was interlaced with a wide-ranging knowledge of non-Christian literature and Hebrew exegitical works, reflecting the complex and resilient link between the Classical world and early Christianity.

Biographical Information

Born in Stridon, near Aquileia, around 346 or 347, St. Jerome observed the violent disintegration of Greco-Roman civilization. His family was Catholic and fairly wealthy, and Jerome was well educated at home and in Rome, primarily in grammar and rhetoric. Although he describes his early life as one of idleness and lack of scholarly ambition, his increasing interest in ecclesiastical literature and scriptural studies was stimulated by his interaction with a close group of friends who lived in Aquileia and included Chromatius (the future bishop of Aquileia), Jerome's foster brother, Bosonus, and Heliodorus (the future bishop of Altinum).

In 373 Jerome left his companions to travel to Antioch, where he fell into ill-health; in a famous letter to Eustochium Jerome described his feverish experience of being transported to the throne of God and accused of neglecting religious works for secular literature. In response, Jerome vowed never to study secular literature, but it was a promise he kept imperfectly. Although he read Classical literature for the rest of his life, Jerome devoted himself to studying the Bible and other religious writings. He also resolved to lead an ascetic life, and the following year began a monastic life in the desert of Chalcis. Jerome's tendency to incite feelings of enmity eventually led him to leave Chalcis in 379 for Antioch and then Constantinople; during this period he studied under church scholars and began translating the Chronicle of Eusebius (382).

In 382 Jerome returned to Rome, where his reputation as a Biblical scholar grew, and where, observing the last, decadent stages of the Roman Empire, Jerome reaffirmed his commitment to monasticism and asceti cism. Some biographers of Jerome have claimed that he assisted Pope Damascus, and that, in the Roman hierarchy, he was to have directly succeeded him. However, Jerome's own writings suggest that he played a less prominent role in the ecclesiastical council. Much of his attention during this period was devoted to translation and commentaries of the Bible, in particular the Psalms and the entire New Testament. Despite the respect Jerome's scholarly works earned him, he proved an unpopular figure in Rome, and in 385 he left Rome for Antioch and then Bethlehem, where he established a monastery. For the next several decades he continued to translate religious works, compile an immense church history, catalogue the lives of "illustrious men," document ecclesiastical controversies, write scriptural commentaries, and correspond with many leading Christian scholars of the day. Of particular theological interest is Jerome's correspondence, beginning in 404, with Augustine. Although the first letters concern somewhat antagonistic disagreements regarding scriptural interpretation, most of the subsequent ones chronicle their serious and friendly discussions of religious issues and controversies. Jerome's increasingly bad health and the numerous military invasions of Bethlehem from the East during that time contributed to the sporadic nature of his work after 406. St. Jerome died in 419-20 in Bethlehem, where a shrine to him wa erected; his body was subsequently transported to Rome.

Major Works

Jerome is best known for his translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin; originally requested by Pope Damascus, Jerome's version of the Vulgate (finished in 404) was affirmed as the "authentic" Bible of the Roman Catholic Church by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, due to its widespread and long-standing use within the church. Heralded as the most literary as well as the most faithful of the existing Latin translations, Jerome's Vulgate was profoundly animated and informed by Jerome's exegetical work in scripture and scriptural commentaries. During his years in Palestine, Jerome had worked to perfect his knowledge of Hebrew, which gave him access to a larger range of Biblical commentaries and interpretations. An example of his incorporation of Hebrew texts is his Commentary on Ecclesiastes (389), which uses both the Latin translation and the Hebrew version as its basis. In addition, Jerome published Quaestiones hebreicae in Geneism (Hebrew Questions; 390), short interpretive essays on the book of Genesis; in these essays, Jerome considers rabbinical interpretations in order to provide justification for his corrections to the Old Latin Bible. His exegetical work also includes commentaries on the twelve minor prophets (finished 406) and on the four major prophets (begun 407, unfinished); these works are collected in Opus Prophetale. Jerome contributed several treatises to the recording of church history, including the Book of Illustrious Men (392), which includes not only church leaders but several non-Christian writers and scholars such as Seneca and Philo, and writings on church controversies. Jerome's Epistulae (Letters; 371-418) reflect his caustic wit and austere moral sense; they are written to a wide range of correspondents, including friends, church leaders, and counsel-seekers. In these epistles Jerome is at his most candid and his most critical, particularly of the corrupted morality of Rome.

Critical Reception

Jerome's work in translation and interpretation was well recognized during his lifetime, so much so that his Latin translation of the Bible has become the standard version of the Roman Catholic Church and has formed the basis of his historical importance. The Vulgate Bible remains at the center of critical acclaim for Jerome's accomplishments for the sensitivity and lyricism of its style as well as the breadth of his research into scriptural interpretation. Yet beyond his well-documented understanding of religious writings and in direct contradiction to Jerome's own anti-Ciceronian vision, Jerome demonstrated an appreciation, familiarity, and skill with secular literature; some critics have claimed that he deserves the title of the "Christian Cicero" for the clarity and realism of his prose. In a sixteenth-century essay explaining his "rescue" of Jerome from incompetent transcribers and editors, Erasmus praises Jerome's scholarly achievements: "If you demand learning, I ask you, whom can Greece produce with all her erudition, so perfect in every department of knowledge, that he might be matched against Jerome? … Who ever became so equally and completely at home in all literature, both sacred and profane?" Jerome's letters and accounts of Church controversies reflect his sharp and often wry criticisms of the mores of Roman society, of corrupted faith and morality within the Church, and of inept interpretations of scripture. Although he is not remembered for generating original theological ideas, his translations, commentaries, and compilations have proved invaluable for religious and secular historians. Many modern scholars consider Jerome representative of the intertwining and sometimes contradictory tendencies of early Christianity: steeped in classical literature, Jerome advocated strict monastic and ascetic practices. In addition, the strength of his spirituality existed alongside a sometimes strained relationship with the Church hierarchy, caused by Jerome's staunchly critical attention to the interpretative problems and moral conflicts of his age.

Principal Works

Epistulae (letters) 371-418

Vita Sancti Pauli Primi Eremitae (biography) 380

Altercatio Luciferiani et Orthodoxi (dialogue) 382-83

Deperpetua Virginitate B. Mariae; adversus Helvidium (treatise) 382-83

*Vulgate [translator] (history) 382-85, 391-404

Chronicon Eusebii Caesariensis of Eusebius [translator; from the Chronicon of Eusebius] (history) 382

De interpretation nominum hebraicorum [translator; from the Onomasticon of Eusebius] (history) 389-90

Commentary on Ecclesiates (commnetary) 389

De Spiritu Sancto [translator; from the De Spiritu Sancto of Didymus of Alexandria] (treatise) 390

Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesim (commentary) 390

Vita Malchi, monachi captivi (biography) 391

Vita Sancti Hilarionis (biography) 391

Adversus Jovinianum (treatise) 392-93

De viris illustribus (Book of Illustrious Men) (history) 392

Contra Joannem Hierosolymitanum (treatise) 398

Apologeticum adversus Rufinum (treatise) 401

Contra Vigilantium (treatise) 403-06

Opus Prophetale (commentaries) 407-20

Dialogi contra Pelagianos (dialogue) 415

Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi. 11 vols. (biographies, commentaries, dialogues, histories, letters, treatises) 1734-42

Patrologia latina. Vols. 22-30 (biographies, commentaries, dialogues, histories, letters, treatises) 1878-90

*Jerome translated the Old Testament from Hebrewand the New Testament from Greek.

Principal English Translations

Select Letters of St. Jerome [translated by F. A. Wright] 1933

Life of Malchus [translated by C. C. Mierow] 1946

The Principal Works of St. Jerome [translated by W. H. Fremantle] 1954

Jerome's Commentary on Daniel [translated by Gleason L. Archer, Jr.] 1958

The Letters of St. Jerome [translated by Charles Christopher Mierow] 1963

The Homilies of Saint Jerome [translated by Marie Liguori Ewald] 1964-66

Saint Jerome, Dogmatic and Polemical Works [translated by John N. Hritzu] 1965

The Correspondence (394-419) between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo [translated by Carolinne White] 1990

Saint Jerome's Hebrew Questions on Genesis [translated by C. T. R. Hayward] 1995

A Translation of Jerome's "Chronicon" with Historical Commentary [translated by Malcolm Drew Donalson] 1996


Erasmus (letter date 1516)

SOURCE: Excerpt from "Dedicatory Letter to Erasmus's Edition of St. Jerome" in Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 61, edited and translated by James F. Brady and John C. Olin, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 4-14.

[In the following excerpt, written in 1516, Erasmus evaluates the historical importance of Jerome's writings and describes the difficulties he had in restoring Jerome's corrupt texts.]

[Now if] honour was paid even to works of superstition like the books of Numa and the Sibyl, or to volumes of human history as was customary in Egypt, or to those that enshrined some part of human wisdom such as the works of Plato and Aristotle, how much more...

(The entire section is 4530 words.)

Henry Hart Milman (essay date 1860)

SOURCE: An excerpt from History of Latin Christianity; Including That of the Popes to the Pontificate of Nicholas V, Vol. 1, Sheldon and Company, 1860, pp. 117-18.

[In this excerpt, Milman briefly discusses the importance of the Vulgate to incorporating Eastern religious thought into the development of Christianity in the West.]

… [Of both] the extension of monasticism, and the promulgation of the Vulgate Bible, Jerome was the author; of the former principally, of the latter exclusively. This was his great and indefeasible title to the appellation of a Father of the Latin Church. Whatever it may owe to the older and fragmentary versions of the sacred writings,...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

William Henry Fremantle (essay date 1882)

SOURCE: An excerpt from "Hieronymus (4) (Jerome), St." in A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines; during the First Eight Centuries, Being a Continuation of "The Dictionary of the Bible," Vol. III, edited by William Smith and Henry Wace, John Murray, 1882, pp. 48-50.

[In the following excerpt, Fremantle critically appraises Jerome as translator, expositor, theologian, church and general historian, and letter writer.]

… 1. As a translator, Jerome deserves the highest place for his clear conviction of the importance of his task, and the perseverance against great obstacles which he displayed. This is shewn especially in his prefaces, which...

(The entire section is 1585 words.)

Arthur Stanley Pease (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: "The Attitude of Jerome towards Pagan Literature," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 1919, pp. 150-67.

[In the essay that follows, Pease discusses the influence of pagan literature on Jerome's writings and concludes that Jerome realized that the "complete acceptance of the new faith did not necessarily involve total rejection of what was of value in the old literature. "]

The student of classical literature can hardly be indifferent to the question how his favorite authors have been in various ages regarded. While at present the attitude of individuals towards the classics may, in view of the wide distribution of printed...

(The entire section is 7045 words.)

Harrison Cadwallader Coffin (lecture date 1923)

SOURCE: "The Influence of Vergil on St. Jerome and on St. Augustine," The Classical Weekly, Vol. 17, No. 22, April 7, 1924, pp. 170-75.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1923, Coffin explores the deep influence of Vergil on Jerome's writings and claims that, through his knowledge of Vergil, "Jerome really constitutes a link between the classical times and the Middle Ages. "]

It is impossible to read the works of the Christian Latin writers Without being impressed by the extent to which they were influenced, both in language and in ideas, by the works of Vergil. This influence is shown through all periods of the Christian Church; indeed, a...

(The entire section is 4426 words.)

L. Hughes (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "Conclusion" in The Christian Church in the Epistles of St. Jerome, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923, pp. 107-09.

[In the essay that follows, Hughes contends that Jerome's writings express the unique character of medieval Christianity.]

Dean Fremantle in his "Prolegomena to Jerome" says (p. xxxiii.) truly enough:

His writings contain the whole spirit of the Church of the Middle Ages, its Monasticism, its contrast of sacred things with profane, its credulity and superstition, its value for relics, its subjection to hierarchical authority, its dread of heresy, its passion for pilgrimages.


(The entire section is 623 words.)

Mary Elizabeth Pence (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "Satire in St. Jerome," The Classical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 6, March, 1941, pp. 322-36.

[In the following essay, Pence explores Jerome's satirical style, focusing primarily on his letters.]


Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus Sanctus was born between A.D. 340 and 350 into a world of bloodshed and destruction—the last age of the old Graeco-Roman civilization. In the span of his life came the final destruction of paganism and the crumbling of Rome under not only the attacks of barbarians from without, but also the lowered standards of morality within her boundaries. The date of his birth1 fell in the troubled times after the...

(The entire section is 5857 words.)

Valery Larbaud (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Excerpt from An Homage to Jerome, Patron Saint of Translators, translated by Jean-Paul de Chezet, The Marlboro Press, 1984, pp. 39-41.

[In this excerpt from a work originally published in French in 1946, Larbaud discusses the inventive effort that Jerome invested in his translation of the Vulgate.]

Hieronymopolis is encircled by two concentric lines of fortifications: one low, much damaged, almost collapsed: Jerome's revision of the Itala,1 one of the first Latin versions of the Bible; the other tall, thick, powerful, awe-inspiring: the Vulgate. Two high towers overlook these walls: the Gallican Psalter and the Roman Psalter. It...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

George E. Duckworth (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Classical Echoes in St. Jerome's Life of Malchus," The Classical Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3, January, 1948, pp. 28-29.

[In the following essay, Duckworth cites Jerome's allusions to classical source materials in the Life of Malchus.]

Professor Mierow has … published a new text and a translation of St. Jerome's Vita Malchi monachi captivi,1 thus making this entertaining biography more available to the general reader. The biography contains two striking reminiscences from Roman poetry and seems rich in passages which may also be echoes from classical authors. It is well known that Jerome studied classical writers, including Plautus, Terence,...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)

Mary Dorothea Diederich (lecture date 1950)

SOURCE: "The Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae: An Index of St. Jerome's Classicism," The Classical Journal, Vol. 49, No. 8, May, 1954, pp. 369-72.

[In this essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1950, Diederich explores Jerome's letter 108the Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae—in an effort to cite evidence of Jerome's classicism.]

Among the many interesting letters of Saint Jerome which I believe give striking evidence of his classicism is the Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae, Letter CVIII in the collection. This epistle is addressed to Eustochium, the daughter of the saintly Paula, to console her for the loss of her departed mother. Written in the form of a...

(The entire section is 2161 words.)

Louis N. Hartmann (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "St. Jerome as an Exegete" in A Monument to Saint Jerome: Essays on Some Aspects of His Life, Works, and Influence, edited by Francis X. Murphy, Sheed & Ward, 1952, pp. 37-81.

[In the following essay, Hartmann discusses and critically evaluates Jerome's method as a scriptural interpreter, especially as evidenced in his commentaries.]

For many reasons the writings of St. Jerome have won just fame for their author. He is renowned as a master of Latin prose, a vigorous controversialist, an ardent advocate of Christian asceticism, and as a source of much useful historical information. But it is especially as a Scripture scholar that Jerome has won immortal...

(The entire section is 17133 words.)

Francis X. Murphy (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "St. Jerome as an Historian" in A Monument to Saint Jerome: Essays on Some Aspects of His Life, Works and Influence, edited by Francis X. Murphy, Sheed & Ward, 1952, pp. 115-41.

[In the essay that follows, Murphy describes the development of Jerome's interest in history alongside a chronological investigation of his life and writings. Murphy notes how that interest expresses itself in Jerome's writings that are not overtly historical.]

The seventy-odd years that form the Age of St. Jerome—from 347 to 420—were hardly an era of great historical writing. As F. Lot and Professor Laistner have pointed out, but for the productions of the pagan Ammianus...

(The entire section is 9392 words.)

Harald Hagendahl (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Jerome's Attitude: Principles and Practice" in Latin Fathers and the Classics: A Study on the Apologists, Jerome, and Other Christian Writers, Elanders Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1958, pp. 309-28.

[In the following excerpt, Hagendahl discusses Jerome's ambivalent attitude toward his predecessors, concluding that he struggled with an apparent conflict between his Christian asceticism and the cultural legacy of pagan literature.]

… Jerome's attitude towards the cultural legacy left by the ancients cannot be defined in a plain and unequivocal formula. It is inconsequent, inconsistent, reflecting opposite tendencies, fluctuating like the currents of the tide....

(The entire section is 7554 words.)

David S. Wiesen (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "O Tempora! O Mores!" in St. Jerome as a Satirist: A Study in Christian Latin Thought and Letters, Cornell University Press, 1964, pp. 20-64.

[In the following excerpt, Wiesen discusses Jerome's writings as commentaries on the state of his contemporaries. According to Wiesen, "St. Jerome's sense of the decline of civilization and his disgust with the vices of 'the world' form an important theme in all categories of his writings, from the letters written in the desert of Chalcis when he was a young man to his late exegetical and homiletic works. "]

It is a commonplace for satirists to castigate the age in which they live, to compare contemporary society...

(The entire section is 13562 words.)

Further Reading


Cutts, Edward L. Saint Jerome. London: Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, n.d., XXXp.

Brief biography of Jerome's life.

Kelly, J. N. D. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, 353p.

Thorough biography of Jerome's life, with specific attention to his writings.

Sigüenza, Jose de. The Life of Saint Jerome, the Great Doctor of the Church, translated by Mariana Monteiro. London: Sands, 1907, 668p.

Translation of the extensive spiritual biography of 1595 by Father Jose de Sigüenza, a monk in the Order of Saint Jerome and one of...

(The entire section is 755 words.)