Saint Jerome

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1754

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...

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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. He was later to say that he could not be held permanently to an oath made in a dream, but the dream does seem to mark the point at which his life’s work—the study of Christian literature—came into focus. He began the first in a series of commentaries on the books of the Bible; this earliest work is not extant.

As Jerome’s health returned, with it came the desire to follow through on his ascetic intentions. Many desert hermits lived near Antioch, and Jerome chose a hermit cell for himself near Chalcis. He remained in the desert two or three years, increasingly frustrated by the abuse heaped on him by the quarreling Syrian theological factions, each wishing to convert him to its position. He had his large library with him and continued his studies, learning Hebrew from a Jewish convert. Shortly after his return to Antioch, in 376 or 377, he began the second of his sustained projects, a series of translations of Greek Christian writings into Latin. His fame was growing rapidly, and he was ordained a priest by the bishop of Antioch, although he was always to think of himself primarily as a monk.

By 379 or 380 Jerome was in Constantinople and suffering from a disease of the eyes. In 382 he was in Rome, in the service of Damasus I, the bishop of Rome, as secretary and adviser. Damasus commissioned what was to become the great labor of Jerome’s life—the preparation of a standard Latin translation of the Bible. The intended scope of this project is unclear: He probably completed translations of the four Gospels and the Psalms while in Rome.

Jerome spent about three years in Rome, during which he became the spiritual guide for an extraordinary group of high-born girls and women committed to the ascetic life and led by the widows Marcella and Paula. Paula’s third daughter, Eustochium, was to be at Jerome’s side for the rest of his life. Throughout his life, Jerome tended to create conflict with his sarcastic and combative remarks and letters. Damasus died in 384, and Jerome left Rome in 385 under pressure from both clergy and lay people whom he had offended.

Paula, Eustochium, and Jerome settled in Palestine in 386. The rest of Jerome’s life was to be spent in Bethlehem and the environs of Jerusalem in a penitential life of prayer and study. Two monasteries were built at Bethlehem, one for women and one for men, and there the three friends lived until their deaths. Jerome returned to the study of Hebrew and moderated his earlier condemnation of the study of the classics. More and more, in his commentaries on and works related to the Old Testament, he relied on rabbinical interpretation and turned from the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament commonly used in Christian circles—to the Hebrew. Jerome became convinced that a Latin translation of the Old Testament should be based directly on the Hebrew, and in about 390 he set aside the work he had done and began a new version from the original texts. Jerome’s translation met with opposition and charges of Judaizing. It was not until the ninth century that his work was fully accepted; his translation of the Old Testament and Gospels, when added to translations of the remaining New Testament books by unknown scholars, became known as the Vulgate (common) Bible.

Jerome’s last years were filled with tragedy. He continued to be in pain and poor health. Paula died in 404. The barbarians, who began their invasion of the Empire in 375, attacked the Holy Land in 405, and Rome itself was sacked in 410. Jerome interpreted the fall of Rome as the destruction of civilization. In 416, the monasteries at Bethlehem were burned and the monks and nuns assaulted. Jerome died in Bethlehem, probably in 420.

Significance

Saint Jerome’s Christianity was a religion that at once challenged the mind of the scholar and urged those “who would be perfect” (Matthew 19:21) to detach themselves from normal worldly expectations. That a monasticism both learned and ascetic was the central cultural institution of the Middle Ages is in no small part his heritage. Although he is not, as was once thought, responsible for the entire Latin Vulgate Bible, he is responsible for the Old Testament and Gospel books of that translation. The Bible in Jerome’s translation was the basis for the Wycliffe translation in the fourteenth century and the Douay version in the sixteenth century. His work was to influence Western theology and church life for centuries.

Jerome was a Latin scholar in a Greek- and Hebrew-speaking world. At Bethlehem, he was one of the most important agents of cross-cultural transference the world has known. Very few ancient Christians, Greek or Latin, knew Hebrew, and contacts between Jew and Christian in the ancient world regularly led to conflict. Against this backdrop, Jerome, because he saw the necessity of tracing Christianity to its most ancient Jewish roots, cultivated personal and scholarly contact with learned Jews and offered a clearer vision than had ever existed of what united, and separated, the religions.

Further Reading:

Courcelle, Pierre. Late Latin Writers and Their Greek Sources. Translated by Harry E. Wedeck. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969. One of the great achievements of twentieth century scholarship, this volume traces in detail the use and knowledge of Greek works by Latin writers. Makes clear the central importance of Jerome as a translator and agent of dissemination of Greek authors.

Hagendahl, Harald. Latin Fathers and the Classics. Göteborg, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1958. This is a careful, thorough, generally reliable study of Jerome’s familiarity with and use of the pagan classics. Good on his dream of the judge and its effect on his later life.

Kelly, J. N. D. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998. This excellent, complete book on Jerome may be criticized for holding its subject to a demanding modern standard of judgment, for a lack of sympathy for his spiritual ideals, especially when they involve celibacy, and for an insufficiently sophisticated presentation of the issues involved in the relation of the literal to the spiritual senses of Scripture.

Rebenich, Stefan. Jerome. New York: Routledge, 2002. Part of Routledge’s Church Fathers series, this book provides a representative selection of Jerome’s vast literary output. Includes index and bibliographical references.

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