September 30 marks the feast day of St Jerome, the most learned of the Latin Fathers and one of the most accomplished polymaths in all of Latin antiquity. Born in Dalmatia, in what is now Croatia, he lived from 345 to 420.
Jerome studied in Rome, where he fostered a love of classical literature. He began building his own library by copying books, and taught himself multiple languages in order to translate works from other languages.
While in his late twenties, he was drawn to the austere monastic life of the Desert Fathers. In 374, he became a monk in the Syrian desert near Antioch where he lived the simple and often brutal existence of an ascetic hermit. During this time, he also studied Hebrew from a Rabbi for four years. His brilliance as a scholar caught the attention of Church leaders who wanted Jerome to be ordained. He relented on the condition he would not be expected to serve in any ministry and would still be allowed to pursue his monastic life. He was finally ordained in Antioch, and travelled to Constantinople to follow Gregory of Nazianzus, who was Patriarch of Constantinople.
In 382 Jerome travelled back to Rome and became secretary to Pope Damasus. Recognising Jerome as the leading biblical scholar of his day, Pope Damasus commissioned him to produce a new high-quality Latin translation of the Bible to take the place of the various translations then being used. In Rome, the language of the early Church up until the 3rd century (and of scholarship) was Greek. By the time of Augustine, Greek was falling into disuse. Damasus knew the Church needed a reliable Latin bible, and Jerome was the perfect person for the job.
Jerome saw the need to go back to the original texts to create the most accurate and authoritative version of scripture to date. Not only would it be accurate, but he would translate the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into a language everyone could read.
It’s his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, that Jerome is particularly known for. Jerome himself referred to it as the Latin editio vulgata, which means common version in Latin. His was a translation of scripture into the language of common speech.
When Pope Damasus died in 384, the 39-year-old Jerome hoped to succeed him as pope. After all, he was one of the most learned men in the Church and his monumental task of creating the new definitive edition of the bible was well-known. It should have been a simple decision.
However, despite his scholarly prowess and unparalleled knowledge of scripture, Jerome was a hard man to be around. He had an infamous temper, a sharp wit, and a cantankerous nature that made him enemies wherever he went.
Jerome had the demeanour of a temperamental genius, prone to extremes of behaviour and language, rather than a man of the people. He was not afraid to unleash his scathing ire on those who deserved it, be they friend or enemy.
In St Jerome as a Satirist, author David S. Wiesen collected much of St Jerome’s correspondence in his chapter ‘Personal Enemies’. ‘You say,’ writes Jerome to Riparius, ‘that Dormitianus has again opened his stinking mouth and emitted some foul putrescence against relics of the martyrs’.
He writes similarly of Jovinian, a theologian with whom he had an argument about scripture. According to Jerome, Jovinian ‘with his usual stupidity’ overlooks important passages and interprets others ‘with a shamelessness to which we have now grown accustomed.’ Jerome also writes:
But, not to be tedious to my reader, the introduction to his second book, of which he has discharged himself like a drunk after a night’s debauch, will show the character of his eloquence, and through what bright flowers of rhetoric he takes his stately course.
Jerome subsequently declares that Jovinian is ‘the slave of vice and self-indulgence, a dog returning to his vomit.’ His language towards his friends and contemporaries was slightly more gracious, but not much, as is evident in his often volatile correspondence with (the much younger) St Augustine. Today, St Augustine is the better known Church father, but even St Augustine recognised St Jerome as a giant of the faith for his scholarly prowess and his mastery of Greek and Hebrew, and Augustine repeatedly wrote to express his admiration of the scholar and to pose him questions. Jerome replied that Augustine, in sending a letter to Jerome and questioning his translation, was only ‘looking for praise and…the little flutters of reputation and celebrity from the people…you’re trying to make yourself famous at my expense.’ Jerome believed ‘true friendship ought never to conceal what it thinks’.
Because of this uncompromising approach to speaking one’s mind, friendship for Jerome – even by his own admission – was not an easy road. ‘A friend is long sought, hardly found, and with difficulty kept.’ Yet he had some deep and loyal friendships, most notably with a woman called Paula who was a widow with four children. She became a lifelong friend and follower of Jerome. Eventually, Jerome decided to return to the Holy Land in 386. He sought a return to the simple solitude of monastic life without the turmoil of politics.
Jerome arrived in Antioch and was met there by Paula and several other followers. The group went first to Jerusalem, then Egypt before settling in Bethlehem. There they built monasteries for men women. In Bethlehem, Jerome continued his work on the translation while maintaining a frantic pace of correspondence, work and study. He is the second most voluminous writer in ancient Latin Christianity after St Augustine. He lived an ascetic existence for 34 years, near Bethlehem where he wrote frequent, occasionally scathing, letters and compiled a history of the Church.
He completed his translation of the bible in 406, and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate still ranks with the Septuagint as one of the most influential translations of scripture that has brought immeasurable value to the Church.
Reading his letters, you get the impression he was a tough man with a scathing sense of humour who spoke his mind. For Jerome, ‘everything must have in it a sharp seasoning of truth’. He saw it as his moral duty to address the disconnect between beliefs Christians professed and actions. ‘Do not let your deeds belie your words, lest when you speak in church someone may say to himself, “Why do you not practice what you preach?”’ and ‘instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.’
Not only did he have his eye constantly on the behaviour of his contemporaries, he had no tolerance for those who saw no need of learning scripture. ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,’ he said. And then, ‘It is worse still to be ignorant of your ignorance.’
Reading his letters, it’s easy to see why people found him difficult. However, this was the uncompromising mind of a brilliant Christian scholar at work, who saw the need to please people as being worthless when compared to living and working for Christ.
Jerome died in Bethlehem on 30 September, 420. His remains were transferred to Rome. Long before his death, he was recognised as the foremost Latin Catholic scholar in the world. St Jerome became a favourite of Renaissance painters. They would depict him as an emaciated monk in the wilderness, next to a skull, symbolising his meditations on mortality, a placid lion which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw, and a cardinal’s hat representing his stature in the Church as one of the four doctors of the Church along with St Ambrose, St Augustine, and St Gregory the Great.
Despite an often rough exterior, he had an obvious love for Christ and scripture, and for people who worked hard and lived in a way that was consistent with their beliefs. ‘There are things in life that are bigger than ourselves. Life is short. Live it well.’
Saint Jerome is the patron saint of archaeologists, Biblical scholars, librarians, students and translators.
Melbourne Catholic11 February 2021