St. Jerome Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.