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Brief Biography of Jerome by Ivor Davidson

Copyright © 1999, Ivor J. Davidson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact. Found at the Ecole Initiative online.


Saint Jerome (Eusebius Hieronymus), magisterial biblical scholar, literary artist, and advocate of asceticism, is traditionally classed as one of the "doctors" of the Latin church. The date of his birth is disputed. He died in 420 CE, which according to Prosper of Aquitaine's Chronicle was his ninety-first year; other evidence however suggests that he was born not in 331 but in the 340s, probably in 347 CE.


Jerome's early life is fairly obscure. He was born of Christian parents in the small city of Stridon, on Dalmatia's border with Pannonia. Both his brother, Paulinian, and his sister entered upon the monastic life. His parents were prosperous, and Jerome was sent to Rome for his education. There he passed through a standard course of studies in literature and rhetoric, and was at length baptized as a Christian. In his early twenties, he left Rome for Trier, then settled for a time in Aquileia, where he began to put into practice an emerging interest in the monastic life; with a group of his close friends, Rufinus, Chromatius, and Heliodorus, he formed a small ascetic community attached to the local bishop, Valerian. He also developed at this time his understanding of Greek. After some disagreements with his companions, Jerome moved to the East, going first to Antioch, then living as a hermit in the desert at Chalcis, south of modern Aleppo. This proved a formative period, both intellectually and spiritually. He began to learn Hebrew, and he discovered the arduousness of the ascetic life as never before. Difficult relations with local monks forced him to move on, and he returned to Antioch, where he was ordained as a priest. He was in Constantinople during 380-1, where he was able to acquaint himself with significant contemporary Greek work on Christology as well as broaden his awareness of exegetical approaches. In 382 he went back to Rome, where he became a de facto assistant to the aging pope Damasus, who commissioned him to undertake a revision of the existing Latin versions of the Bible and to produce a new standard version. In Rome he formed close friendships with a number of aristocratic Christian women, notably Marcella, Melania, Paula, and Paula's daughter Eustochium, to whom he became a spiritual tutor and counsellor. He continued to write elegant epistles and eloquent protreptics for asceticism. The combination of his literary brilliance and the patronage of his wealthy friends seemed to promise him great things, but he increasingly annoyed the Roman clergy with his bitingly satirical attacks on their manners (cf. especially his famous Ep. 22, to Eustochium). Jerome's relations with Paula in particular seemed to sit oddly with his denunciations of clerical indulgence and his impassioned advocacy of self-denial. So long as he enjoyed the patronage of Damasus, little could be done, but the advent of pope Siricius in December 384 gave Jerome's many enemies a chance to lobby for an investigation into his behaviour. In 385, following an official enquiry, he was condemned and effectively banished from Rome by a clerical body whom he labelled a "senate of the Pharisees" (Did. Spir. Sanct., praef.; cf. Epp. 33.5; 127.9). He left the city for the East, being joined en route by Paula and Eustochium. After visiting holy sites in Antioch, Egypt, and Palestine, the party finally settled at Bethlehem in the summer of 386. A monastery and a convent were built courtesy of Paula's wealth, and Jerome presided over a fairly liberal ascetic regime for the remainder of his life, devoting his energies to the kind of intense scholarly activities and spiritual discipline to which he had always been inclined.

Jerome the Scholar

Jerome stands out as one of the greatest biblical scholars in the history of the church. His most remarkable achievement was his new translation of the Scriptures. The Latin Bible of the fourth century was notoriously corrupt, with differing versions in existence in Gaul, North Africa, and Italy: Jerome famously remarks that there were almost as many textual forms as there were manuscripts (Ep. Praef. Evang., to Damasus). A new edition was sorely needed. It is a mistake, however, to think that Jerome's work proceeded according to a uniform plan, or to imagine that he was personally responsible for every part of what we have come to think of as the editio vulgata. His initial project was to produce a new rendering of the four gospels - not so much a fresh translation of the Greek as a synthesis of various Latin versions in conformity with the Greek text. The completed work was presented to Damasus shortly before his death in 384. This was followed by a new version of the Psalter, a rather crude rendering of the Septuagint. This version is traditionally associated with the Roman Psalter, the standard Roman edition until the time of Pope Pius V in the XVI Century, but the association is unreliable. In c. 392, Jerome was able to replace it with a better translation, the so-called "Gallican Psalter" (thus named after its subsequent popularity in Gaul), which used the text of the Septuagint given in Origen’s Hexapla. However, further work on other parts of the Old Testament convinced him that any translation which relied only on a Greek text was simply not good enough: it was necessary to go back to the veritas Hebraica, the "Hebrew verity" (as he would typically call it) itself. Among all his contemporaries, Jerome was exceptionally well-equipped to take up the challenge, and he embarked on a completely new rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures. Pursued intermittently, the work occupied about a decade and a half of his life, from 390/1 until 405/6. It included a third recension of the Psalter, though this version never attained the liturgical popularity of its "Gallican" predecessor, which was ultimately incorporated into the Vulgate manuscripts in its place. The quality of Jerome's translations varied somewhat, and it took time for them to gain acceptance; for some while they were used alongside existing versions. In the end, however, their obvious scholarly superiority over all previous renderings in the West won them the recognition they deserved, and from the sixth century onwards they started to be collected into a new Vulgate Bible.

Jerome's return to the Hebrew was seminal. It was also controversial. He was severely criticized by Augustine and others, who argued that he was in danger of relapsing into a Judaizing position by abandoning the Greek antecedents of the Bible as it had come to be known in the West. Whatever objections were raised to the theological implications of his method, however, Jerome proved an assiduous student of his subject. By way of background research into the biblical texts, he enquired into questions of topography and etymology (cf. his Onomastica), expanding on existing reference manuals in Greek and drawing also on rabbinical wisdom. He produced a number of technical commentaries which sought to discuss textual and philological issues; the most valuable of these are on the prophets, the Psalms, and on Genesis (cf. especially his Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim). Exegetically, his tastes were eclectic, reflecting a range of hermeneutical influences: a concern for the literal sense of Scripture tends to predominate in his work, but spiritual interpretation is also accommodated, as his homilies also confirm. Jerome's interest in history extended beyond his work in the fields of biblical translation and exegetical comment. He also updated the Chronicle of Eusebius, continuing its sequence from 325 up to the year 378, and in his De viris illustribus he produced a survey of distinguished writers up to 393 (the first extant example of a "patrology"). He also wrote a series of vignettes of Eastern hermits (the "Lives" of Paul, Hilarion, and Malchus), which however reveal stylized moral elaborations of his own ideals of asceticism far more than biographical accuracy.


Jerome's scholarly gifts and outstanding literary productivity were mediated through a personality which seemed to relish controversy and delight in polemical expression. Broken relationships with friends and colleagues were part and parcel of his career at almost every stage. For many years he was an ardent devotee of Origen, and translated several series of his homilies on both Old and New Testaments into Latin. In the fierce controversy that flared up surrounding Origen's theology in the last years of the fourth century, he changed his mind, and became a bitter and tendentious opponent. Matters were not helped when his friend from boyhood, Rufinus of Aquileia, published a new (and rather free) translation of Origen's De principiis, in a bid to demonstrate that their former mentor was indeed orthodox, and pointed out in his preface that Jerome had earlier supported him. The friendship of Rufinus and Jerome was no more, and the ensuing years witnessed a bitter war between the two, during which Jerome released his own translation of De principiis to prove just how heretical Origen really was (this work is now lost; but cf. especially the personal attacks on Rufinus in Apologia adversus libros Rufini). Again, positive evaluation of Ambrose's contributions to the subject of virginity soon gave way to scathing denunciations of Ambrose's lack of originality, couched in barely-disguised anonymity. More predictable and impassioned salvos were fired at foes such as Helvidius, the Roman layman who denied the post partum virginity of Mary (Contra Helvidium , and Jovinian, the monk whose anti-ascetic ideology also evoked the ire of Ambrose and Augustine Adversus Iovinianum. Vigilantius, a priest from Aquitania, visited Bethlehem in 395, and his stay ended in a quarrel: years later, Jerome was accusing him of opposing sacred ideals such as clerical celibacy and the principles expressed in the cult of the martyrs (Contra Vigilantium). Other diatribes were delivered against Luciferian (extreme Nicene) opponents, against John of Jerusalem, who had had Jerome temporarily excommunicated for his anti-Origenist activities (especially his support of the particularly zealous guardian of orthodoxy, Epiphanius of Salamis), and, in later years, against the Pelagians.

Jerome's propensity to berate his opponents produced, in his copious epistles and in his polemical treatises, the most brilliant satirical writing of late antiquity. The down-side, apart from the obvious poisoning of so many of his relationships, was that his contributions to theological debate seldom proved very acute. Even in his final years, spent attacking Pelagianism, he showed a much greater ability to vilify Pelagius' supporters than to grasp the doctrinal issues they were raising. Many of the accusations Jerome levelled at his foes reflected deeper-seated insecurities and struggles within his own temperament. Jerome wrestled with the ambiguities of sexuality and self-denial; he agonized, too, over his relationship to a secular world whose literary legacy he cherished yet whose values he felt called upon to repudiate (witness his famous dream that he was turned away from heaven for being a Ciceronian, not a Christian, and his vow to devote himself thenceforth to sacred texts rather than to the classics (Ep. 22.30) - a pose later pragmatically toned down to an argument that the best features of secular literature could in fact be turned to good use (Ep. 70)).

In an age when Greek forms still dominated much of the intellectual landscape of Christianity, Jerome demonstrated that the greatest Christian learning could also be expressed in Latin. He did a huge amount to restore the importance of the church's Jewish inheritance, evincing an enthusiasm for Hebrew texts that would not be matched in the West until the Reformation. His angular personality, and the biting language, distorted ideas, and disrupted relations which it produced, will no doubt forever be part of his legacy to the church; but so too must be his prodigious literary talent and his outstanding philological and textual scholarship.


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Copyright © 1999, Ivor J. Davidson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,
including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.




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